The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Susan Neiman. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Susan Neiman. Susan is an American philosopher and writer. She has written extensively on the Enlightenment, moral philosophy, metaphysics and politics. Her work shows that philosophy is a living force for contemporary thinking and action. After a distinguished career in academia and writing and other things, today she’s the director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, Germany. Welcome, Susan.
Susan: Glad to be here.
Jim: Yes. I think this should be a very interesting conversation. Today. We’re going to mostly talk about her recent book titled Woke is Not Left. She’s written [inaudible 00:00:44]-
Susan: Other way around, Jim. It’s left is Not Woke, although both are true.
Jim: How did I do that? Left is Not Woke. Okay. Let’s flip it around.
Susan: Everybody gets it mixed up. By the way, this is the German and the Dutch cover, which I like very, very much because it basically shows that, I mean, they’re both true, but there’s a reason why I started with left rather than woke because what I really wanted to do was define what it means to be left today. I think we all have plenty of examples of what woke is in our heads, but we’re quite confused about what it means to be left, and that’s why I wrote the book.
Jim: Cool. Left Is Not Woke. All right. She’s written nine books in total, and I went through her Amazon page yesterday and I picked out one to add to my reading list called Why Grow Up?: Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age. Doesn’t that sound like a useful book? If you like this podcast, check out some of the other things she’s written. We’ll get soon to the definition of left. But before that, let’s talk a little bit about woke. There are a number of people, particularly on the left, who don’t like the term woke because of its history, and I know it’s history, and so do you, but it’s become a useful term. When you say, why did you use that forbidden phrase, and to you, what does woke mean?
Susan: Look, nobody likes the word woke. It has simply become a term of abuse and that just in the last three or four years, so I had to think long and hard about whether or not to use the term because a number of friends of mine said, “You’re giving aid and comfort to the right.” It’s people like Ron DeSantis use the word woke. You certainly don’t want to be instrumentalized by them. I thought long and hard about a different title. But in fact, woke does pick out a phenomenon that we all know about. I mean, I’ve just been reading every time you open the news and that in almost any country that I follow, you’ll see an example of it. The two that I was just reading about, well, sitting at my desk, were people complaining that neither Leonard Bernstein nor Golda Meir in two biopics is being played by someone who’s Jewish, and that therefore there’s a problem with that. Okay?
Culture allegedly belongs to one tribe or another, and only members of that tribe should participate in it or certainly represent it. That actually undercuts the force of culture itself. Okay? I mean, what culture is meant to do is to teach us or open us. I don’t want to sound too didactic. Open us both to the differences between another culture and our common humanity. The idea that only only a member of a tribe can play or read or use culture of that tribe is really quite problematic. Okay? That’s just one instance of what woke is. Woke starts with really admirable emotions that I share and that anybody on the liberal left has always shared, that is wanting to be on the side of people who are oppressed, wanting to support people who are marginalized, wanting to make up for historical crimes, or if not, if they can’t be made up, at least you want to remember them. Okay? Those are all left-wing emotions, which is why we get confused about the concept.
The problem is, as I show in the book, that those left-wing emotions are undercut by some very reactionary philosophical assumptions that often people don’t even know they’re making because the assumptions are so widespread at this point, they’ve gotten into the water system. I mean, you cannot open a standard newspaper without seeing one or another of the assumptions that are actually quite reactionary. There’s a sense in which woke is an incoherent concept, although we all know instances of it, even though nobody wants to cop to it. I mean, it’s just a term of abuse. I did think about using something else. I decided, no, we know what this means and everyone is saying it privately. Okay? They are often afraid to say it in public, either afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, or indeed afraid of having some kind of consequences that could be problematic in their job or in their social life. But people are talking about it everywhere, and in many, many countries. It may be a phenomenon that started in America, but it’s all over the place. Okay?
This book has already been, the translation’s going on in Brazil, in Korea, in various European countries. It is a problem. Okay? In order not to be co-opted by the Ron DeSantises or Richie Sunaks of the world. I made some decisions. I told my publisher I was not going to go on certain talk shows, even though it meant, definitely meant that the book didn’t get around as much, but I didn’t want to be on, and they said, “Well, we know not to put you on Fox.” I said, “I don’t want to be on Bill Maher.” I don’t like the snarky way he makes fun of woke. I’m not making fun of it. I’m trying to offer an empathetic criticism, okay, but I’m not interested in jumping up and down and making fun of people, much less moving to the right in any way, shape or form.
I say on the very first page of the book, I don’t even consider myself a liberal. I am proud to call myself a leftist and a socialist. Now, I live on a continent where both of those are much easier things to say than liberal, which basically just means libertarian in Europe, but I’m happy to say it in America. Those used to be perfectly reasonable terms to use in America. None other than Albert Einstein, W. E. B. Du Bois, they were friends. But Einstein, who’s always an icon [inaudible 00:08:20] many things, wrote a book defending socialism at the height of the McCarthy, or the beginning of the McCarthy period, so I would like to make those words acceptable again.
Jim: I think it’s interesting that you have chosen to contrast, in American terms at least, relatively far left with explicitly opposed to this new phenomenon of woke. My own politics is too heterodox to try to explain, but if you projected it onto the normal team, red team, blue, single dimension, I’d be somewhere to the left of Bernie Sanders and more closer to Peter Kropotkin or somebody, a narco socialist or something, and I actually did work for the Bernie campaign in 2016.
Susan: Oh, good. Well, I certainly voted for him twice in the primaries. But I also tell people often that Bernie Sanders is to the right of Angela Merkel, who is a center right politician. Because in Europe, the kinds of things that even the center right take for granted on questions of social rights and so on are things that Bernie didn’t imagine, but that’s a problem of American political life. But, yeah, it is far left in the U.S., but I did that explicitly because I got tired of hearing the woke referred to as the far left or the hard left when they’re not.
Jim: Yeah. I’ve tried to make this point several times in online venues that a left perspective and a woke perspective are two separate things, and they do not have to be combined. In fact, I actually got kicked out of a forum I’ve been a member of for 30 years for making that argument, if you could believe it or not. These people have become unfortunately totally tribal, which we’ll talk about in a moment, and anyone who deviates from the tribal form must be burned at the stake. I also then pointed out to them, but I don’t think this made me any friends either, a historical analogy, which was the left in the real sense of the left really got some momentum in the United States in the late 1960s, right, and then it went nuts with some of this new left crazy stuff, bombings and riotings and things of that sort.
What was the result? 40 years of conservative politics in the United States. We had all conservative presidents from 1968 to 2008, and Obama sort of borderline. He is not exactly a progressive. He is not exactly a conservative. He’s kind of in between. But every single president from 1968 to 2008 was a conservative. Some of them called themselves Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, but they were conservatives. In European terms, they’d been considered quite right wing, right?
Susan: That’s right.
Jim: I said combining true progressivism with crazy ideas just alienates the masses of the people and they reject the progressivism, and I suspect that if the progressives don’t wake up and decouple progressivism from wokery, the same thing’s going to happen again.
Susan: I highly agreed with you, and that’s really why I wrote this book, just to try and disentangle conceptually what distinguishes the left from the woke. That was exactly my goal.
Jim: Okay. Let’s move into the book and one of the first comments you make, and I thought it just rang so true, is historically at least, and I would say today it should be the case as well, but is less so when you combine wokery with being left, the right tended to be blood and land, right? Tribalist to the nth degree. Think about Germany. I mean, there’s the most vile example of them all where blood and land tribalism led to one of the great horrors of human history, and the left has historically been the universalists. Talk to us about that distinction because I think that may be the fundamental distinction here that we’re trying to get.
Susan: It’s very important. Look, the Nazis are only the end point of a view that you can only have real connections and therefore only real obligations towards people who belong to your own tribe, and you’re absolutely right. Blood and soil, really. Blood and land, blood and soil is a Nazi expression, but it’s certainly one that’s been upheld by conservatives almost forever. Okay? Let’s talk. Let’s leave aside the differences in sort of pre-modern times, but certainly in modern times. The idea is that your allegiance is to your tribe and you can’t really understand other people. Okay? Whereas for people on the left, tribe is the whole world potentially, and of course you have certain understandings with people who belong to your tribe and who get your jokes immediately and understand allusions that you’re making, and that’s all fine. There’s nothing wrong with that, and nobody’s denying that on a cultural level. Okay? It would be terribly boring if there were no differences between human beings at all. Makes us robots. Okay?
But at a political level, the goal is to look for the things that bring people together, look for basic humanity, and one of the ways in which we can actually do that is by entering partly other people’s cultures. Of course, you’re never going to be able to really get to know all of the different cultures that there are in the world, but my recommendation is always that you sort of walk around in at least two, because if you only try one other culture, you always think, well, there’s a binary, so Americans do it like this, but the French do it like this. No, you really need two, preferably one that doesn’t speak your native language so that you’re actually forced to learn another language and in engaging with another culture and another people’s history and their music and their literature and their food. But unfortunately, Americans do often tend to just leave it at food. Engaging with another culture, you appreciate all the differences that there are between people, but you also appreciate the common humanity.
One of my heroes is the great, and alas, mostly forgotten artist and activist, Paul Robeson, who I’ve sometimes called the hero of cultural appropriation because a lot of what I just said is straight Paul Robeson. The way in which to cultivate solidarity and universalism is to look at, in his case, particularly the music and the literature of many cultures. Okay? But what you have now among post colonialists, people who are woke, the border between those two things is quite porous. Post-colonial theory and woke are quite similar though apparently people don’t like to admit to being post-colonial theorists either these days, and I’m not sure why that is. A friend of mine is working on post-colonial theories, going to try and figure it out for me. But the idea is what is most important is the tribe that you come from, where tribe is usually defined as either ethnic or gender identity. Okay?
I don’t like the phrase identity politics because it reduces all of our identities to two points, okay, and all of us have lots of identities. One exercise that I think is useful is for everybody to take a piece of paper and write down 10 identities that they have. When you’re with your parents, even if you’re an adult, your basic identity is child. You feel it the moment you walk into your parents’ house. When you’re raising children, your basic identity is parent, okay? People often or usually identify with their profession. Not always, but for many people, that’s a huge part of their identity. People identify with a political position if they care about politics. If they don’t, then that itself is a kind of identity. I never understood how people could identify so deeply with a sports team, but for billions of people around the world, that is a deep part of their identity is who they cheer on and follow. In any case, we all have lots of identities that are important to us and to reduce them all to our ethnic or gender tribe, it’s not just an impoverishment.
It’s a very interesting impoverishment because it’s the two identities where we have the least agency. Okay? Those are identities that we’re born into and have very little control over, and they are the ones that involve the most, precisely because they’re things that we’re born into and don’t choose, they are the ones where we’re most vulnerable and subject to oppression or discrimination. Okay? Now, I understand why there was a turn to pay attention to people who were otherwise left behind for thousands of years in the writing of history, people who were the victims of history, and that was a necessary corrective for the ways in which history up to about the middle of the 20th century was written. I don’t mean history books. I mean narratives of history, public history, the way that people perceive how things work and what moves things along. But we’ve gone overboard with this, and as in other things. We have, by considering the places where we might be victimized as the most essential parts of our identity, we have stopped focusing on what people do to the world and rather paying attention about what the world does to us.
One of my, I mean, I have a number of heroes, but one of them is Brian Stevenson, who had the privilege of interviewing for my last book, who says, it’s one of his lines when he’s doing death penalty cases, nobody is, or, “Everybody is more than the worst thing they ever did,” okay, and he’s right. But in focusing on these two identities, we are focusing on the worst thing that ever happened to us or might happen to us, yeah? The ways in which we’ve been treated in racist or sexist ways. I’m very far from denying that that happens, okay? First of all, I’m a woman and I experience mild-ish forms of sexism to this day. Secondly, I have plenty of friends of color, and with some of them, I would be afraid for them in certain parts of the U.S., for example. Okay? I supported Black Lives Matter. I mean, certainly until it moved in a direction where white people were only allies rather than people who were in solidarity because unarmed black people were being shot, not because they were members of our tribe, but simply because that is a crime against humanity. Okay? Yeah. Let’s see. Well, I’ve gone on for a while. You probably want to ask me something at this point.
Jim: Yeah, And now this is a good touch point to the next part that you talked about. Again, regular listeners of the show know that I consider myself, despite it being unfashionable, an Enlightenment man, right? I still hold true to those values, and you make the very strong case that progressivism rightly construed is a child of the Enlightenment.
Jim: Yeah. Let’s make that case for us.
Susan: Sure. I don’t know what circles you travel in, Jim, but unfortunately in a lot of the circles that I travel in and in more than one country, say the word Enlightenment, and somebody says back to you, “White racist, Eurocentric patriarchal hogwash.” Okay? This is a line that comes from post-colonial theory, the idea that the universalism in particular of the Enlightenment, but also other features of the Enlightenment were the attempt to disguise particular interests in domination and colonialism by saying that these were universal values when they were only white Eurocentric values. I first heard that claim, oh, about 20 years ago, and I thought it was so ridiculous that I didn’t even bother to attack it. I thought it was going to go away pretty quickly because it’s just so… It’s not just historically false. It turns the Enlightenment upside down. The post-colonial or the woke claim that we should look at other parts of the world besides Europe when we’re thinking about the world is a claim that itself comes from the Enlightenment.
That was an enlightenment trope that, okay? Starting with Montesquieu’s The Persians, you have a whole raft of books in which people use either fictional or actual non-Europeans to criticize things in Europe that you could get burned at the stake for saying if you said in your own voice. So, you could publish a book that, oh, well, criticizing the patriarchy that condemned women who had children out of wedlock to horrible fates. Oh, well, these are the crazy Tahitians who were saying this. Or somebody who’s condemning private property relations in Europe. Oh, well, those are those silly Algonquins or Hurons in North America. Okay? But these were very conscious tropes that you see from the beginning of the Enlightenment on, hey, guys, look at the world from the perspective of other people. The quickest way to find places like that is in Voltaire’s Candide, which is actually quite wonderful book that people don’t read carefully enough, because you see an absolute condemnation of Eurocentrism. You see an absolute condemnation of colonialism and slavery in Voltaire’s Candide, which is really, it’s not Kant. It’s an easy book to read.
Jim: It’s a fun book. It’s kind of silly, but it’s fun.
Susan: No, it’s actually, it’s a serious book, too. I’ve wrote about that in one of my books, too, my book on evil.
Jim: Maybe I’ll reread it. It’s been a long time. Yeah, it’s funny, I make the same point. I said, I think of the high Enlightenment writers like Diderot and Voltaire. These were some of the first thinkers in the world full stop to really consider seriously the epistemological, metaphysical, and historical lives of other people, India, China, the Middle East, et cetera, and I can tell you, those countries were not interested in putting their feet into the shoes of other people. This was an Enlightenment in philosophy.
And of course, the other big critique, and this is a partially legitimate critique, right? The greatest, highest statement I would argue of the Enlightenment was Thomas Jefferson saying, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. Written by a slave holder, right? Obviously hypocritical. He only talks about men. In fact, there’s a great correspondence between he and Abigail Adams, John Adams’ wife, and it turns out Abigail Adams actually a lot smarter than John Adams, right?
Susan: I gather, yeah.
Jim: Yeah. John Adams was a smart guy, too. He wrote some serious treatises on political philosophy, but Abigail’s is way beyond him, and she had no rights at all, basically, right? Or very few. So yes, yes, yes. This great line, all men are created equal was freighted with hypocrisy, but it was a stake in the ground from which so much has come.
Susan: Let’s make a distinction between normative and descriptive claims. Normative are claims about how things should be, descriptive is a claim about how things are. Okay? Now, Jefferson must have felt guilty about owning slaves, including several who were his own children, because he wrote towards the end of his life, this marvelous line, “I tremble when I think that God is just.” Okay? Whether he was actually foreseeing the Civil War or not, we don’t know, okay? But he knew, some piece of him knew that he was not living up to his own ideals. But the fact that you don’t live up to your own ideals does not damage the ideals themselves. Okay? The ideals are there, and very few people live up to their own ideals.
The other thing that people forget though about the Enlightenment, it’s not the case of Jefferson, but it’s certainly the case of Diderot and Kant and Voltaire, they were left wing intellectuals. Okay? They were criticizing existing relations, and they didn’t always win. We don’t always win. But they were putting ideas in the world that needed to be there so that eventually, and maybe it took a century or two, eventually they might be realized. Now, they were almost all terrible about women. Okay? One just has to accept that. The only way in which I can understand how they could insist that European men and non-European men were fundamentally the same and had the same kinds of rights and not really notice it about the woman who they were often living with, and both Voltaire and Diderot, by the way, loved some very smart women. Okay?
Jim: Yeah. Who was the woman that Voltaire lived with on and off for many years, and she was extraordinarily capable, right?
Susan: Yeah, absolutely. She was translating Newton and all kinds of things. But how could they not notice that these people were fundamentally equal to them? The only way that I’ve been able to understand this a little bit is that in an era before birth control, where I forget exactly what the rate of infant mortality was, but it was huge.
Jim: It was close to 50% by age of five.
Susan: Okay. As in the maternal mortality wasn’t quite as bad, but it was bad, and in order to-
Jim: About 1%, and here’s the [foreign language 00:31:03]-
Susan: I think it’s more than.
Jim: In Western Europe, it was about 1%. People say, well, that doesn’t seem so bad. Let me tell you what that’s equal to. That’s about equivalent to the risk of being a astronaut on the space shuttle, so it’s damn dangerous, especially because you probably had nine or 10 kids, so you had a 10% chance of-
Susan: Well, you had to, because half of them, or a large number of them died in childhood. Okay? Procreating and bearing children was such a big part of most women’s lives unless they lived in a monastery or a nunnery, that you could see that it might be hard to imagine that women could have the same rights and responsibilities as men, and as a matter of fact, Voltaire’s lover, Émilie du Châtelet, did die in childbirth. Okay? There you have it. But I’m not apologizing for the sexism. I’m only trying to understand it. But to deprive myself of the insights and the groundwork that these rather sexist guys gave the world that feminists could build on at later ages would be ridiculous. By the way, Diderot, I once as an exercise, I thought about trying to take excerpts of Diderot and put them next to excerpts of Frantz Fanon and ask the reader to guess who was who.
Jim: That would be fun.
Susan: The problem is the dead giveaway is the poisoned arrows. Diderot talks about poisoned arrows. But except for the poison arrows with which he is urging the Native South Africans to drive or to kill, literally to kill the Dutch East India company that’s trying to settle there, with the exception of the poisoned arrows, Diderot sounds more furiously radical than Fanon.
Jim: Interesting. Okay. Let’s go on to another topic from the Enlightenment that I still consider to be hugely important, and a goodly faction of the wokies, particularly the theory wokies like to attack, which is reason. Right? Finally, finally. I sometimes call the Enlightenment childhood’s end. We finally were willing to take all of our fairy stories as explanations of why the universe was here and how to behave, et cetera, and say, we can use reason to make progress in the world, and of course, reason is not unlimited in its efficacy. Kant laid that out pretty well, right?
Jim: But reason is an extraordinarily powerful solvent of nonsense, and many of today’s wokies reject reason as some blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Talk about that a little bit for us, if you would.
Susan: Sure. Well, the argument, and again, this is post-colonial theory and quite a number of people is that reason again is an instrument of violence, okay? Violence against nature, but also violence against other people. I must say I have a really hard time understanding this, except that for the fact that it depends on a very impoverished version of reason, of reason as a sort of technological instrument, okay, that’s only good for instrumental purposes and calculating and so on. Even instrumentally, the reason, the technological reason that allowed us to expand human life beyond the 40 years, give us 40 more years in order to complain about it, is something that would be hard to deny, or that created washing machines that saved millions of women from spending their lives simply doing laundry, which took up a great deal of time. All of those things were certainly helped to expand human possibility and expand human freedom, which was always the goal of reason. Okay?
Reason was never against nature, which is what the wokies or the post colonialists sometimes claim. But it is something that you can use to ask whether something is natural or not, and all forms of repressive government, whether they’re supported by a particular religion or whether they’re supported simply by a political hierarchy, want people to believe that the current order is a natural one, but look at what counts as natural in the 18th century. Slavery, the subjection of women, feudal hierarchies, most forms of illness, and the Enlightenment introduces reason not to say that it’s overwhelming or that it’s infallible, but to say everyone is born with the same potential for reason, and everyone has the right to speak, and it is not the church, and it’s not the aristocracy which tells you what to think.
Now, today, it’s less the church or the aristocracy in most places, but you can look at a lot of neoliberal economists, for example, who simply say, “There is no alternative. This is the way that things are,” and look at them as the people who are insisting that we adopt ideologies without question because that’s just natural, and the question that we can always ask if we’ve use our own reason is, wait, natural? What does that mean? Can you not imagine another possibility? Have there been other societies that work differently?And so on.
Jim: Yeah, of course, Hume slayed the is-ought fallacy, and yet it’s still with us all these years later.
Susan: Well, actually, this may be too technical a conversation to go into at any length. I don’t actually think that Hume belongs to the Enlightenment. I think he is falsely counted to the Enlightenment. A lot of people are surprised when I say this. Why do I say this? Hume says human reason is impotent, and it’s a slave to the passions. Okay? Hume is a Tory, okay, who is perfectly happy to not question the order that exists and is perfectly happy for there to be classes who are simply fooled by this religious nonsense that he doesn’t believe in. So really the only reason that people count Hume to the Enlightenment, although he writes beautiful prose, there’s no question about that. It’s very seductive prose, and it seems extremely reasonable. But the other reason as far as content goes that he’s counted to the Enlightenment is because of his attack on religion. All right? I don’t think that that is as central to the Enlightenment as other people do. Certainly attacks on religious dogma is, but the way that Hume goes about it I think is not necessarily, well, not even necessarily. I don’t think it shows a real Enlightenment spirit.
Jim: Well, gee, yeah, probably not fully. But I will say that in my own view, the necessary though perhaps not sufficient condition of Enlightenment is to cast off from religious dogma. Right? If you live in a world where religious dogma is the final authority, you are not an Enlightenment person.
Susan: Yeah. I mean, I agree with you about that, but emphasis on the dogma, okay? Because it’s simply not true. A lot of the, I mean, even Voltaire who loved to scoff at any example of religion, Voltaire was a deist, okay, and he holds gratitude towards the creator to be a fundamental virtue. Okay? There’s a wonderful scene where he’s described as going up to a top of one of the Alps at sunrise with a friend, and he looks at the sunrise and he says, “I believe, great God, I believe,” and then he says, “As for monsieur the Son and madame his Mother, that’s another story.” Okay?
Jim: Yeah. I put Voltaire’s religion in the same class with Einstein’s and Spinoza’s, essentially.
Susan: Yeah, that’s right. But they both, they’re definitely all in some deep sense religious in a way that, I don’t know, Richard Dawkins or David Hume cannot understand.
Jim: Yeah, that is true. That is true. That’s a very useful distinction. Now let’s move on to another issue, and this is something you did not address.
Susan: Wait, can I just say one more thing about reason?
Susan: If you destroy reason, if you think of it as an instrument of violence and you don’t take it, I mean, you either don’t take it seriously, you think it’s something hypocritical or you even think it’s violence. What do you have left when you’re trying to communicate with other human beings? Sheer subjectivity. Okay? There we go to this feature of woke that I and other people find extremely problematic. It used to be called ad hominem, and now it’s called positionality, so what is important is which tribe a speaker comes from and not the content of her arguments, and so the rejection of reason is very much caught up with this whole idea of tribalism, okay? Because if you don’t believe that there’s a form of communication that can reach anybody potentially, and that is actually persuasion and not simply, “This is my truth.” I mean, “This is my truth,” is a real problematic statement, but it’s become very widespread. If you don’t believe that there’s a form of communication and reasoning that everyone can participate in, all you have is, well, my truth is I’m speaking as a such and such. This is my opinion, and that’s all you’ve got.
Jim: Yeah, and that’s very, very dangerous, right, and two other ways that this is often packaged in the wokie discourse, one of them is the idea of lived experience, right?
Susan: Yeah. Well, that’s one.
Jim: Yeah, and subjectivity is important and one can never challenge somebody else’s subjectivity. But both reason and data can refute aspects of lived experience. For instance, my beloved seventh grade science teacher, Mr. Williams, he challenged us like the second day of school to say, “Prove the earth is round and not flat,” and it turns out that it is rather difficult to do that from everyday experience, and ever since then, I’ve been looking for examples, and I’ve only seen six or seven in my everyday life in what has got to be now, what, 50 some years, and so if you say lived experience is the arbitrator of all things, then the earth is flat for most people. That’s just [inaudible 00:44:00]-
Susan: That’s right. Great. That’s a great example. Very good. I’m going to borrow that one.
Jim: Yeah, feel free. The other one that I still cringe. Well, I guess I’ve heard it so many times now I don’t cringe as much, but this term looks like me.
Susan: Thank you.
Jim: When I hear that, I first start hearing it about 20 years ago, I said, that’s an extremely racist thing to say, right, that somehow the authority of some source has something to do with people who look like me. When I was a kid, I was a real science nerd, and my heroes were people like [inaudible 00:44:38], you know? Fuzzy faced, central European Jews. Right? Didn’t look anything like me or my redneck father or the southerners I grew up with, and if I said… If I wanted to listen to their bullshit, I could have done that for free. But the people that I really respected, I had to read these difficult books when I was 10, 11, 12 years old, and it would’ve been a huge loss for me to only listen to people who looked like me. I hate that term.
Susan: I do, too, and that’s very interesting. That’s another good example. I hate it because, once again, I feel like it’s so simple. Well, it’s very childlike, and people often use it, “Oh, my daughter was so happy to see somebody who looks like her,” and I just say, well, on which dimension? Are we really only talking about skin color? When a child looks at people. I mean, it’s very childlike language. It’s like about the level of a three year or a four year old. I raised three children, so I have still have some rough idea of stages of development. It’s not at all clear that when a three or four year old looks at someone, the first thing they see is skin color. There’s a point at which children never really believe that they’re going to grow up into adults because the adults are so much bigger and they can do all these different things, so how does that person look like? But is it taller or shorter? Is it fatter or thinner? There are all kinds of dimensions, and it does seem, once again, very silly to insist that this one dimension is the dimension that matters. But I agree with you, if we only learn from people who look like us, our worlds would be impoverished as they often are when [inaudible 00:46:40].
Jim: Yeah. I would be a backward redneck like the people I grew up with, right? Why would I want to do that, right?
Susan: Where’d you grow up?
Jim: I grew up in the working class suburb of Washington, D.C. Prince George’s County. You say, that doesn’t sound too backward. Our part was pretty backward, let me tell you.
Susan: No, I spent a little bit of time, and now I’ve actually blocked the name of the county that we were in, I hated it so much. Was it near Ellicott City, okay?
Jim: That would’ve been probably Howard County.
Susan: Howard County, thank you. Yeah. No, I mean the high school that, I dropped out of high school. The high school that I was sent to, I think 2% of the graduates ever went on to any form of higher education, including vocational and technical school, so I saw some rednecks in the Baltimore Washington [inaudible 00:47:34].
Jim: Yeah. Yeah. My high school, about 20% went on to a four-year college.
Susan: That was better than Howard County.
Jim: Yeah, exactly. I also looked up later in some of the census data in my zip code at 1970, about the time I graduated from high school, 49% of the parents were high school dropouts, 49% of the adults were high school graduates, and 2% had college degrees, so it was definitely not a fancy place, but it’s neither here nor there. I worship my fuzzy faced central European Jews and look what happened, right? That’s a good thing, not a bad thing. I don’t want to be a redneck. You know?
Jim: I want to be a person that understands quantum physics in a fairly deep way. I want to understand the history of Central Europe and all the crazy things that have happened there over the last 2000 years. But anyway, neither here nor there. Now, I do have one thing I want to push back on a little bit. We’ve been in kind of riotous agreements so far, which I generally don’t bring on authors who I fundamentally disagree with, but I always do pushback on where I think there’s a pushback necessary, and that is where you talk very rightly about reason. You don’t mention the second big part that came from the Enlightenment, and that’s data and empiricism. Now, we had data and empiricism before, but think about people like Franklin, Ben Franklin, one of the great scientists of the era, and there were many others. Adam Smith actually was a great empiricist, and then later, of course, Darwin was one of the great inductive empiricists. His theory of evolution came from 40 years of very careful autistic almost study of the details of nature, so data combined with reason is actually our universal solvent, and I’m going to suggest that because you haven’t used the data lens quite as much, you were fooled by Black Lives Matter. It turns out that-
Susan: No, there’s a totally-
Jim: Well, let me-
Susan: Go ahead.
Jim: Let me make the case and then you can rebut it. Now, it is true for sure that, and this is documented well, that on average black people are treated worse than white people by the police, right? That’s a thing. Right? There’s very little doubt it’s true. But it’s not true that they’re killed at a higher rate than you would think. For instance, if you look at the Washington Post database of police shootings, the ratio of blacks to whites, and it’s actually considerably more whites than blacks, is identical to the ratio of criminal suspects and defendants, et cetera. Exactly to the decimal point. Then we say, all right, well, what about the details? Well, very well done studies by a guy named Roland Fryer at Harvard. He was the youngest African-American ever to be awarded tenure at Harvard. Dug into what actually goes on in a number of police departments, and he shocked the world and including himself, and he basically said it was the most surprising result of his career and not what he was expecting, that per encounter with the police, white people are more likely to be shot by the police than Hispanics or blacks, and that black and Hispanic police officers are more likely to shoot black suspects than are white police officers. So, the fundamental argument of Black Lives Matter turns out to actually not be true if you look at the data.
Susan: I have seen some of that data, and I would push back in two ways. The first is the main way in which I see myself as having white privilege is that I never had to give my children the talk. Okay? That is something that every black parent has to do, and if you’re a parent, you worry about all kinds of stuff, all kinds of things. You cannot protect your children against all kinds of things. You do not worry if you are white about your child being hurt by a police officer, and that is also a matter of data. I mean, I have a friend of color who’s also Jewish, who keeps trying to say, “Why are you taking the line that Jews are white?” I said, look, when I was a kid growing up in the south, we weren’t, really, but at this point, the difference between me and you is I would worry about you in some neighborhoods of the U.S. and I would not worry about myself.
So, I think there’s a burden, even if the data show that the encounters do not turn out to be more deadly. I have seen over and over, frankly, police abuse, even if I’ve never seen anybody shot by the police, treat people of color with more disrespect and more suspicion than white people are treated, so that’s number one. Okay? Number two, however, is you guessed just a little bit wrong because you don’t know the rest of my work, which is fine. There’s no reason why you should. But I wrote a book in 2008 called Moral Clarity and Moral Clarity was meant to be the last time I wrote about a defense of the Enlightenment, okay? And in there I talk at great length, it’s a much longer book than this, about a lot of the attacks that were being made on the Enlightenment up through, I guess I finished it in 2007. I did not take this attack seriously that the Enlightenment was the source of Eurocentrism and colonialism [inaudible 00:53:47]. I just didn’t discuss it. I discussed everything else.
I go into the concept of reason in great detail and data and all kinds of things that I only touched on here very briefly, or not at all, because I’d already written about it. If you’re an author who writes a fair amount, you always are trying to strike a balance, because on the one hand, there’s almost nobody, all of whose books I’ve read, so I don’t expect that any reader of one book has read any of the others. But then there are some people who do, and you don’t want to bore them by repeating the same stuff over and over, so it’s tricky. But no, I’m all for empirical data. Absolutely. It’s just that in the attacks that you’re getting on the Enlightenment as an instrument of colonialist violence, nobody’s really attacking data. They’re attacking some conception of reason.
Jim: I don’t know. I’ve actually brought forth these examples of data about Black Lives Matter, and it gets just totally rejected with spurious arguments, totally spurious arguments, but are also refuted elsewhere. Another famous example is there was a polling done quite recently on how many unarmed black men do you believe are shot by the police in the United States each year, and from the far left, there were numbers as high as 10,000. A number of people had estimated a thousand. The noticeable percentage were up at a thousand, like 20%, and the actual number is about 14. Right?
Susan: Yeah, but I’ve got a protest here, Jim. I like you, we just met, so I don’t know much of anything about you, but I’ve got a protest if I may say so at the smiles with which you say that, okay? Because violence and suspicion towards people of color is a very real thing even if the statistics about police violence have been misread and misinterpreted, and I don’t think that we have any cause to mock that phenomenon. I just have too many friends who have been treated by the police in ways that I would not be treated, and I have to take that seriously. In the same way, I was just having a conversation with a good friend of mine who’s a man who finds it a hard time really believing some of the sexist stuff that I have to put up with sometimes, and it’s only when there’s just an example after example. It’s in print. Look, they say this about me. They would never. Okay, okay, I get it, and I don’t want to discount it even if I find it hard to believe, so I think we should be careful there.
Jim: No, and I will say, I said right up front, the evidence is clear. Police mistreat blacks at a higher rate than they mistreat whites. And in fact, I was about to say Roland Friar’s research validates that, so what I’m making is an argument that we need to be honest when we speak and look at the data and not frankly lie about things that are just not true for essentially propagandistic purposes. I got another example, but we’re going to move on. We have only a limited amount of time here. I want to get to the next mild pushback, but it might not be a pushback. It may just be a language issue, which is I think we both agree on universal humanism as the alternative to tribalism. However, in my own formulations, in fact I’ve been working on and off on an essay for Quillette Magazine that Claire Lehmann wants me to write. I’ve written a few things for them, and I’ve agreed to do this article for them where I push for what I call liberal universal humanism, and I position it as the alternative to alt-right and wokery, and I find liberal to be important.
Help me build the story up a little bit, because other forms of universal humanism that we’re aware of include things like Catholicism, right? The majority of Catholics are now not white people, and the rising hierarchy of the Catholic Church is all African. It’s all African, and the Catholic Church will be an African church within a generation or two. The other religion famous for its universalism is Islam, particularly Sunni Islam. People of every shape, color, nationality, ethnicity, et cetera, can be Islam and be members of the, what’s they call it, the Ummah, I think, the body of Islam, and they’re absolutely sincere about it and it works.
But neither Catholicism nor Islam is liberal in that they have a tight box that you have to be in to be accepted into their universality, and so I use liberal in the Thomas Jefferson sense, not in the right wing or libertarian European sense of liberal universal humanism to indicate universal humanism that transcends any arbitrary boundary of religion, gender, sexual orientation, et cetera, and really does try to live up to the initially hypocritical but eventually very powerful solvent of all people. All people are equal. So, why did you not use liberal?
Susan: Well, for a bunch of reasons, maybe because, you’ll remember this. We’re roughly the same age, I think. Remember the, I think it was Phil Oaks, the song Love Me, I’m a Liberal? I mean, that’s what I grew up with, and liberals were the people who thought Dr. King was probably doing a good thing, although they didn’t necessarily risk anything themselves, but they really thought he went too far when he started criticizing the war in Vietnam. I mean, that was the liberal position that I grew up with, okay, and I inclined… I mean, that is literally the home that I grew up in, but then as I grew, and I’m grateful that my mother actually was somebody who risked quite a bit during the Civil rights movement, and that had a deep impact on me. But I can also remember her saying how awful it was that King was criticizing the war in Vietnam and I was moving towards a much more socialist position myself.
But I’ve spent more of my adult life outside the U.S. than in it, and it’s a real commentary on American politics being so far to the right of the rest of the world that liberal just doesn’t mean the same thing in, say, Europe or India as it means in the United States. It really means libertarian, roughly that you believe in a neoliberal economy and you don’t mind gay people, or you can live with marriage equality. That’s what liberal means for the rest of the world. It’s not what it means in England. It’s not what it means in Israel. It’s not what it means in Germany or et cetera, et cetera, or India or wherever, so I have been influenced by a more international outlook. I mean, you’re discussing the…
I mean, I might be able to live, I could live with democratic as long as one understands it properly, because neither Islam nor the Catholic Church are democratic organizations. You’re right to say that they’re universal, but they’re extremely hierarchical. There’s a set of laws, you follow them or not. There are a set of authorities, and of course the Catholic churches at least has a relatively clear hierarchy. I happen to be a fan of Pope Francis, but I know that there are people in the church who absolutely hate him. Moreover, I’ve been told that one reason why, Italians who know this, one reason why he eats in the common communal dining room and not in the fancy Pope’s quarters is that there’s less chance of getting poisoned that way. I mean, he has real enemies.
Jim: I like that. I like that. That’s good.
Susan: I mean, yes, he is very democratic and non-hierarchical as far as it goes. But we all know Francis is an exception. Normally the Catholic Church is extremely autocratic and to some degree with different seats of religious authority. So is Islam.
Jim: Yeah. I’m not sure. Democratic I’m not so sure works for what I would be trying to express, because it’s perfectly possible. I mean, we’ve had it in the United States. You could have a democratic tyranny, right, where we had Trump, that he got in through the democratic process, and we may well get that assclown back in there again.
Susan: Look, I know that, and I’m extremely concerned about it, but that’s why I wouldn’t call it democratic. I mean, the Nazis got into power through a democratic election, and then they destroyed all democratic procedures.
Susan: That’s simply the abuse of democratic structures in order to establish fascism doesn’t make you a democrat. It’s an abuse of democrats.
Jim: Yeah, so that’s why I would say democratic universal humanism, it doesn’t quite get it all the way for me. I could see your point about liberal partially, though keep in mind that the second half of the European liberal, that they are actually freedom loving about personal behavior is what I’m pushing at with my term liberal. I don’t load that with any assumption one way or the other about means of production, how it should be organized. As I said, my own views on that are extremely radical left, more anarcho-syndicalist than they are socialist or capitalist, but certainly not capitalist. I think we probably agree when we’re talking about universal humanism, but I did want to make the distinction between universal humanism that is not liberal or freedom enhancing and what additional term we want to use for that, I’m not a hundred percent sure.
Susan: Okay, we can split that difference. I just would never call myself a liberal, and that’s partly thanks to my childhood or youth in which liberal really was, at least in the left-wing circles that I was attracted to, it was not a nice thing to be, and so that it’s still shocking to me that it should be so frightening in America that people will talk about the L word. I don’t know what the percentages of people who admit to the sin of being liberal, but it’s like 17% the last time I saw a poll. But it’s just, again, it shows how out of step America is with the rest of the world, and I’m keen on bringing back old fashioned terms like left and socialist, which were once a part of American political life.
Jim: We used to have a socialist party, right?
Susan: [inaudible 01:06:29].
Jim: Eugene Debs got quite a few, millions of votes, right? All right. Let’s move on to sort of back to where we were, and I think this is, again, getting close to the meat of the argument, is that the wokies and their fellow travelers seem to have embraced identitarianism in a very strong way, and that is the opposite of universalism, at least so it seems to me.
Susan: Well, yeah, that’s what I said in starting, which is why I don’t use the word identitarian or identity politics because it’s a reduction of our very varied identities down to two things. Yes.
Jim: Yeah. What is it that the identitarianisms are not seeing? What is it that makes them, because at one level, as you say, a lot of them are from the progressive side, and one sort of assumes people who have moved to the progressive side do so for essentially humanitarian reasons, for the good of humanity, et cetera, and yet they’ve somehow gotten locked into these identitarian stances. Any thoughts about what that’s all about?
Susan: Oh, I’ve got a lot of thoughts. Look, I think the important date is 1991. I think that the end of the Cold War and the triumph of neoliberalism left most people on the left in a state of shock and despair, so that rather than having the kind of international, serious reflective conversation, what went wrong with state socialism. I mean, it’s silly to think that there’s only one form of socialism because there are many forms of capitalism, and there could be many forms of socialism. But instead of sitting down analytically and saying, okay, what went wrong? You suddenly had people, I mean, I know many people who spent decades of their lives arguing about whether they were Maoists or Trotskyists or this or that. Suddenly say, oh, yeah, it was always wrong. I knew it all along. It led straight to the Gulag. That’s that.
So, what was left? I mean, one thing that state socialism was, well, not state socialism, because that of course was Stalinism, and Trotsky said you couldn’t have socialism in one country, and Trotsky was right about… If history has shown anything that Trotsky was right about, it’s that. You can’t have socialism in one country because it is such a threat to other countries that they will do what they can. I mean, Reagan was very clear about it. He said, “We’re going to kill them by making them…” We’re going to kill them. We’re going to win by making them ruin their entire economies by putting all their money into weapons, okay, because we are going to up the weaponry, and so they will have to. I mean, that was a very conscious strategy of Reagan and company. Okay?
But what socialism was initially as an idea was an idea of universal justice and relative equality, at least not great inequality between people, and a huge sense of universalism. It’s interesting. I run this think tank, public think tank right outside Berlin in what used to be East Germany, and I wanted somebody to talk about the Korean War and how it was affecting politics at the moment with North Korea, so I invite somebody who’s an expert. He’s a Korean and he’s an expert on Korean history at Oxford, and the first thing he does is, “I want to thank the people of East Germany because right after the war when our cities were completely destroyed by American bombs, it was East German engineers who came and helped us build up our country again.” Now, this is not somebody who’s supporting Kim Jong Un by any means whatsoever or the dictatorship of North Korea, but he remembered the universalism that sent people all over the place to try and support countries that were developing or that had been destroyed by war, whatever. Okay?
But those kinds of big projects suddenly seemed in 1991 to have been unmasked or doomed by the failure of state socialism, so anybody who wanted to be left had no universalist project left anymore. What they could do is focus on particular instances of discrimination and injustice, and they were there to be focused on. I mean, there’s plenty of racism, plenty of sexism, plenty of homophobic behavior to focus on, and that started… I mean, I understand that perhaps 1991 was such a big shock to people that maybe they needed a moment to settle and couldn’t actually reflect, but that became very self-serving. I think we’re living in a Cold War that’s much worse actually than things were in the 1950s and 1960s, because in the 1950s and 1960s, most everybody knew someone who actually was a socialist. All right? They probably knew people who were communists, and the impression that you now get, which is that socialism and fascism are versions of the same thing, which has just turned people to not to think of them as live alternatives in one form or another is very hard.
Do you know that the Paul Robeson House and Archive, well, it’s a house in Philadelphia, does not on principle, and there’s one in Princeton as well, use the word socialist about Paul Robeson? The recent Robeson research, the books that come out on him, he happens to be a figure I’ve worked on a lot, portray him as a black nationalist, which is the last thing that he was, but it’s so awful to be called a socialist that they don’t want to use the term together with Robeson if they’re defending Robeson or never with Albert Einstein. I mean, this never gets used together. People think of him as a kind of space cadet who was very smart, but unworldly. He was a very savvy political activist and a socialist. So what that comes down to is actually Paul Robeson is much more blacklisted in memory than he was during the 1950s when his passport was taken away from him, and W. E. B. Du Bois called him the most famous American in the world, which he was, if you take the whole world into consideration.
Anyway, that’s how I think we got to the point where all that seemed available if you wanted to be on the left were focusing on particular instances of discrimination, but there was no way that you could… We could no longer imagine a universalist project, which is particularly sad because if we don’t get a universalist project together very soon, the planet will be destroyed. It cannot be taken care of in tribalist terms. Anyway, we’re running up towards, at least on my clock, we’re running up towards all the time that I have. Did you have particularly burning questions that you want to ask tonight?
Jim: Yeah. Two more. Yeah, two more.
Jim: One, when we see the turn that woke has taken under the influence of the French nihilist philosophers and psychoanalysts and what have you, it essentially rejects moral arguments and reduces everything to power dynamics. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Susan: Oh God. Yeah. I have to say, I’m getting fairly talked out soon, so I’m going to have to make it brief. This is a very old idea that any moral idea or political idea that claims to be more than power politics is a scam that’s trying to convince us all to bow to some powerful person who’s trying to increase his power. I talk about the book, this idea goes all the way back to Plato’s Republic, where you have a young sophist who sounds like a simple version of Michel Foucault, say, and the problem is with those kinds of arguments, they come up again and again. History gives us enough examples of events that were said to be undertaken for some good reason, and in fact were simply undertaken to increase the power of the person who was doing them. We all probably have examples in our own lives, but think about the war in Iraq, which was allegedly taken to create democracy, spread democracy in the Middle East, and it was perfectly clear from the very beginning that this was not George W.’s major interest. Okay? He was talking about hegemony. He was hoping for control of oil supplies. He was not interested in spreading democracy.
So, you see cases like that, and it’s then very easy to say, so it’s all a bunch of hooey. Okay? Anytime somebody makes a claim to be fighting a good war or putting themselves out for a good cause, what they’re really trying to do is increase their own power, and this is a sort of thing that gets supported, interestingly enough, by nihilistic philosophers like Foucault. Interestingly enough, Edward Said said that of Foucault towards the end of his life, which is quite interesting. But you also see it in an ideology that we no longer even think of as an ideology because it’s in the water supply, and that’s evolutionary psychology. Not evolutionary biology, but evolutionary psychology, which traces all of, explains, thinks and explains all of our actions by reference to what our hypothetical ancestors 200,000 years ago did in order to survive, and everybody would like some kind of definition of the essence of human nature.
People have been arguing about it, philosophers have been arguing about it for thousands of years, and along come evolutionary psychologists and say, “Hey, we’re not just speculating. We’re telling you what the science is.” It’s not science, it’s speculation. Ask an archeologist how much you can actually know about what people 200,000 years ago did. There’s no writing, there’s no written records. Okay? There’s some thin archeological evidence that you can find certain things out about, but not a whole lot. I mean, this leaves aside the question of whether people who lived 200,000 years ago are exactly the same as we are after all that history has given us. But people take it to be absolutely scientifically solid, and it’s very hard to open a newspaper without seeing, “Oh, here’s an explanation. So-and-so did this because.”
Jim: Your stone age brain, right? That’s the-
Susan: That’s right. That’s right. Our stone age brain is appealed to for the same set of explanations, namely this is all power and people don’t actually do anything for any other reasons, and what you think is altruism, this is the evolutionary psychologist’s problem of altruism, right? I mean, altruism is not a problem, but they make it a problem because it’s a problem for their theory. How do you explain altruism? Well, it could have been evolutionarily adaptive, et cetera, et cetera. I talk about this in the book. But people don’t quite have the nerve to criticize this or to see how deeply the ideology affects us because if you talk to somebody like Steven Pinker, which I’ve done, you quickly get this sort of, wait a minute, are you one of those idiots who doesn’t believe in Darwin? Okay? Are you a creationist?
By the way, Darwin did not believe in evolutionary psychology. Okay? He believed in evolution, but he did not make the kinds of claims that evolutionary psychologists make. But of course, we can all get intimidated by that, especially if we’re not biologists. I’m not, but that was one of the chapters on which I really sought the advice of several people whom I know are and know this stuff called, and I said, am I wrong? Am I wrong? This seems so, and they went over the material, and I had always felt this about evolutionary psychology, and there are some other people who have made those arguments, but they’re usually in books that are thick and rather complicated and appealed, use equations and the things that most ordinary readers are not going to push through. Anyway.
Jim: Interesting. Two more points and then we’ll let you go.
Susan: You said one more. You said two more.
Jim: Well, I had two questions. One point and one more question.
Jim: My point is about this view that everything is power, and when I read this from the wokes, my first thought was, hm, your opponents better not believe that or you’re in trouble, right? If we all believe it’s just power, why don’t all the white people get together and slaughter all the non-white people? They could. And so if we take the wokes seriously that it’s all power, what they’re basically inviting is a word of the death between ethnicities. How could that possibly be a good thing?
Susan: I agree with you. Yeah. I quote, what’s his name? Andrew Breitbart. Andrew Breitbart, and another of these right wing, Mike Cernovich, as saying, “I read [inaudible 01:23:49] in college. I know how to use this stuff,” so yes, you’re absolutely right. Some of the right already has discovered this.
Jim: Yeah, that’s not good.
Susan: [inaudible 01:24:01] reactionary. [inaudible 01:24:04].
Jim: It’s the exact opposite one. All right, let’s exit on a hopeful, I would call it a hopeful note, which is you made a very nice distinction between hope and optimism, and then I would put in parentheses pessimism. Talk about hope and what does hope mean to you in this context?
Susan: Well, it’s very easy. Optimism and pessimism are statements of fact. The world is going to hell in a hand basket, a pessimist would say. An optimist would say, “The facts are like this. Things have gotten better and better, and they’re going to keep getting better and better and so on.” So, I am totally not an optimist. I think the world looks terrible right now in many different ways, but I accept Kant’s argument that hope is not a statement of fact. Kant writes, it’s not an emotion. It’s a moral obligation. Because if we stop hoping, we will become resigned. We will not be able to contribute to the world maybe not going to hell in a hand basket, and therefore we have a duty to hope, and Noam Chomsky made the same argument to me. He didn’t know that it’s from Kant. I told him that. But it’s fine. So whichever source you want to take, Chomsky or Kant, both of them say it’s really quite simple. If you give up on hope, the world really will go to hell in a hand basket. So if you want a simple formula, optimism is a statement about facts and hope is a possibility of changing facts.
Jim: Very nice. Let’s wrap it right there on that good ending.