The Center Cannot Hold

Becca Demosthenes

Becca was born and raised in the Midwest, the ope is strong with this one. She studied English literature and linguistics in grad school; she taught for ten years until she gave it all up to become the ever tired servant to a tiny tyrant. Most of Becca's writing these days consists of sharing her thoughts and Bible studies on her blog as well as very random content on Twitter under @LadyDemosthenes. Given enough sleep and time Becca hopes to put together a children's book about Knowles VanderBeak, her son's stuffed owl.

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65 Responses

  1. Philip H
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    Really interesting post.

    Question – do you really observe that so many living in those alternate universes are this thoughtful on the subject? Is there something else driving them?Report

  2. Jaybird
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    If you see it as crab bucketing, it makes a bit more sense. The moral thing to do is to cut yourself off at the knees. Look! I cut myself off at the knees! Cut yourself off at the knees. Here, use my sword.Report

  3. Chip Daniels
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    how it sees racism as the original sin never to be erased from society but to be perpetually apologized for and worked on.

    Substitute “Sin” for “racism” and you get religion.

    Which somehow never seems to stir up as much outrage.Report

    • Faith Thompson in reply to Chip Daniels
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      Nobody teaches religion to children as “our little secret” not to be discussed with the “old man at home.”

      Religion remains a problem only when it is forced on other people — tell a coal miner he’s out of a job, because of your “science-based” religion, and he’s rightly upset. It ought to stir up outrage — particularly as we see “Anthropogenic Global Warming” as a relic of the past (with the past 10 years flatlining our CO2 output, and dramatically increased volcanic activity…).Report

    • Pinky in reply to Chip Daniels
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      That doesn’t make any sense. The sentence contains both “sin” and “racism”, so substitution doesn’t make sense; also the Christian concept predates the modern understanding of racism, so you can’t truly describe the original as a copy of the reproduction. Beyond that, the concept of sin is far broader than that of racism, and even includes it. You can’t articulate a meaningful criticism of racism without referring back to the idea of sin.

      Since sin is a bigger concept, it’s easier for Christians to see that excess against sin can lead to sin. The anti-racist has no idea that he’s spouting racism, or violence, or whatever form his hatred takes. As Andrew Klavan says, the Devil doesn’t care who you hate, as long as you’re hating.Report

      • Chip Daniels in reply to Pinky
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        In theological terms, racism IS sin, just another manifestation of the human tendency to view others as lesser beings unworthy of dignity.

        The story of Lot, the Good Samaritan, all the admonitions about treating the stranger with kindness, these are all describing racism.

        And the central message of religion is that sins like racism are never vanquished, and always present in all societies and the struggle against them is eternal.Report

        • InMD in reply to Chip Daniels
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          This is completely ahistorical. It’s also bad theology. Really it sounds more like an arbitrary decision to name every human shortcoming and tendencies towards wronging others as ‘racism.’ Which is great I guess if the goal is to call lots of people racists, but not so much if it’s to understand the world we live in or the human condition, to say nothing of religion.Report

          • Pinky in reply to InMD
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            If he’s saying that racism is a subset of the set “Sin”, then it’s acceptable, but if he’s saying that the set “Racism” is equivalent to the set “Sin”, then yeah, I agree with you. I’m just not sure which Chip meant. I mean, I’d assume he considers sexism to be a member of the set “Sin” but not the same as racism.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Pinky
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              The Red Hot Chili Peppers talked about Stéphane Sednaoui’s storyboard meeting for the Give It Away video. He sat there with a picture of a woman in a bikini reclining on a boulder and he pointed at the picture and said “it’s not going to be like this. It’s not going to do this sort of thing.”

              This is like they’re pointing at the Euthyphro and say “it’s not going to be like this…”Report

            • Chip Daniels in reply to Pinky
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              Yes, all these “isms” are really just plain old ordinary sinfulness.

              FWIW I first made this comment to the liberals over at LGM in a discussion about how prevalent sexism is among leftist men.

              That a lot of leftists are like religious people who think that because they adopt the creed and mouth the words, they have vanquished sinfulness forever.

              Racism, like all evil behavior, is just part of human nature and demands constant self reflection and work to keep at bay.Report

  4. John Puccio
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    This post reminds me of Joan Didion’s critique of second wave feminism in the White Album. (As does the Yeats inspired title of the recent Netflix documentary). I’m not sure if that’s subconscious or intentional, but I believe Didion’s take on Marxist influence was incredibly prescient and as relevant today as it was when she wrote it in 1972. It’s always about deconstruction.Report

  5. Chris
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    Which authors, besides Derrida, do you consider postmodern?

    Relatedly, what would it mean for a word to “hold meaning on its own”?Report

    • Marchmaine in reply to Chris
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      Is this important?… we could name the folks who started the avalanche and trace the intellectual history back to a grain of sand; but ultimately the effect has been somewhat like the old saw with regards bankruptcy… our narrative discourse became postmodern gradually, then suddenly.

      I think you know me well enough that I think Enlightenment Rationalism has been hardest hit and doesn’t know that it’s dead yet; but the path forward runs through a form of ‘virtue narrative’ and not ‘back’ to deontological rules making.

      So I think the diagnosis of the OP is correct… we’ve deconstructed the Enlightenment project, and have substituted a genealogy of morals based on personal narrative. Whence we go from here? Well, this is where I think a certain sort of Liberal appealing to ‘universal rights’ is the true reactionary… but unmoored from universal rights, and a shared conception of the good, we’re left only with power and narrative.Report

      • Chris in reply to Marchmaine
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        I think it’s important for a few reasons, but in the context of this post, mostly because I don’t think the author has read much, if any “postmodern” writers, relying on a “Very Short Introduction” book, and thus paints with an overly broad brush, creating a very inaccurate picture. Where she does refer to specifics (e.g., Derrida on the meaning of words), the description of what he says is pointlessly vague, designed only to make it sound like Derrida is being extremely unreasonable. What’s more, in associating CRT with postmodernism, she’s elided much of what lies at the heart of CRT, and its position in intellectual history, in order to dismiss it through a sort of guilt by association.

        I will of course be much more positive about what’s often labeled “postmodernism” than most here — sitting just behind my keyboard, under a monitor, is a book actually called Postmodernism (https://www.amazon.com/Postmodernism-Cultural-Capitalism-Post-Contemporary-Interventions/dp/0822310902), and in the drawer of the desk is a book by Baudrillard (https://www.amazon.com/Symbolic-Exchange-Published-association-Culture/dp/1473907586/ref=sr_1_5?keywords=baudrillard&qid=1638810967&s=books&sr=1-5) — but regardless of how we feel about it, it is virtually impossible to even have a conversation about ideas, or the relationships between ideas (e.g., the relationship between CRT and whatever works of Derrida) without being specific about what, and often whom, we’re talking about, an impossibility that folks like the author here and Lindsay are depending on, lest the emptiness of their criticisms of CRT and other ideas become unavoidably transparent.Report

      • Chris in reply to Marchmaine
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        My reply here seems to have disappeared, but the gist of it is, without talking about specifics, the post and its “guilt by association” approach to CRT is meaningless: it depends entirely on being vague and saying little or anything about actual ideas, and the moment anyone points that out, it recedes to nothing.

        It is, of course, undoubtedly true that critical theory generally, postmodernism specifically, and to some extent CRT, came out of an intellectual tradition heavily influence by Marx (and Freud, and Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard, and Hegel, Kant, and Spinoza, and Descrates, and Husserl, and Heidegger, and… all of whom are very different, and in some cases very un-Marxist, if not directly critical of Marx), but this is meaningless as a critique (and again, meant entirely as a guilt by association tactic) unless you can say a) how any particular idea relates to Marxism, and b) what, specifically, is wrong with that, which of course the OP and Lindsay can’t do.

        [nevermind, there it is, but I’ll leave this as a postscript]Report

        • Marchmaine in reply to Chris
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          Thanks appreciate both comments… I certainly agree that the intellectual history and various threads and post-threads are useful to parse in many circumstances; not sure it’s terribly necessary in this context. Unless we also stipulate that ‘CRT’ has incumbent upon itself to delineate which thread of post-modern thought it sees as it’s foundation and how it influences DEI.

          But instead we get hand waving that DEI isn’t CRT isn’t post-modern and that strikes me as a form of ‘do the reading’ not as an incentive to do the reading (which many have) but to deflect the discussion before it starts.

          I think it’s *also* interesting which strains of post modern thinking are influencing various political and ethical reasoning, but I think most people couldn’t unpack how their political and ethical reasoning is already influenced by postmodernism… so it becomes an almost impossible task.Report

          • Chris in reply to Marchmaine
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            I am definitely interested in the ways in which various philosophical traditions are being filtered down into and influencing people’s views on the world, and I’d be truly excited if, say, Adorno, Marcuse, Foucault, and Deleuze were more influential in the general public, but my criticism of the OP and the sorts of lazy anti-intellectualism it represents is not meant to say “CRT is not postmodernism,” because I think that statement is as meaningless as “CRT is postmodernism,” or even, without a great deal of context, “CRT is influenced by postmodernism”. It is abundantly clear, that like Jimmy Concepts, the author of the OP has no idea what she’s talking about, and is simply trying to associate CRT with other things she knows nothing about, most notably Marxism and “postmodernism”. It’s less a matter of “do the readings” than a criticism of blatant sophistry.

            I would love to read a good breakdown of the various ideological connections and commitments of CRT. I have not read much CRT, because I’m not that interested in legal theory generally, and only knew it before it became a buzzword among reactionaries because it shows up occasionally in the abolitionist literature. I’m also a Marxist, in the broad sense (I am by no means an orthodox Marxist, but I am fervently anti-capitalist and a communist with a little c), so while I don’t find criticisms of the “it descends from Marx!1!!!1” form, I would love to hear about the specifically Marxist aspects of CRT, should anyone care to break those down for us. None of that’s gonna come out of reading Jimmy Concepts and a Very Short Introduction book, however.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Chris
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              When you say “CRT”, do you mean real CRT or do you mean bad DEI?Report

              • Chris in reply to Jaybird
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                I know almost nothing of DEI, except what gets talked about on Twitter, and almost all of the twitter stuff I see is extremely critical of it (both on the left and the right), but sure, DEI is fine. The CRT I see referenced is always the actual legal theory stuff.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Chris
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                Really? Because when I see CRT referenced, it’s covering everything from poor kids being asked to show their work for math problems to different cultures not necessarily embracing monochronism.

                Very rarely does it discuss the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.

                As often as not, you’ve got wide-eyed people asking “why are people upset that we’re finally asking public schools to teach that slavery existed prior to the 1860’s?” and conflating that with CRT.Report

              • Chris in reply to Jaybird
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                Outside of academic and abolitionist literature, I’d only seen CRT referenced a handful of times at all until it became a conservative bugaboo. I remember one of those times clearly, because it was in a heated conversation about the definition (and extension) of racism.

                I don’t think I saw anyone left of center reference CRT specifically even once until it became a right wing bugaboo, and I definitely didn’t hear it in the context of “DEI”, though again, I didn’t hear much of anything positive about DEI.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Chris
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                I think that a lot of what people are calling CRT is not CRT. I mean, CRT is an obscure academic theory and even PhDs have trouble talking about it properly.

                They’re just calling bad DEI “CRT”.

                “THAT’S NOT REALLY CRT!”, is something that will stop being true the moment you abandon the more problematic linguistic prescriptivist position and embrace a much less embarrassing descriptivist one.Report

              • Pinky in reply to Jaybird
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                Remember the big difference is that DEI isn’t limited to race.Report

  6. Rufus F.
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    I think it is important to be somewhat specific, yes. Because, otherwise, you’re waving your hand in a general direction and saying “we need to fight all that stuff- the postmodern stuff.” Part of the problem for me is I kinda agree with the critique of pomo, and specially its overheated suspicion of grand narratives, but that stuff was already dated by the time I was in grad school. English probably is still mired in it, but at least in History, we’d sort of moved on. I was highly critical of that strain of thinking and nobody batted an eyelash, and some of the older profs had actually known Foucault. So I don’t know. I think the Enlightenment isn’t as weakened as we like to think. And, frankly, its defenders are going to have to be people who actually did the reading.Report

  7. Greg In Ak
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    Here’s a different take. Absolutely none of the philosophical background to CRT matters a single bit. None of it. It’s all an intellectual take on defending priors. It’s about attaching a scary name “marx….boo” to something to make it sound bad. Read Rufo, he admits this. Lindsey….sigh. Gibberish. Lindsey is clueless, sure he spots a million buzzwords and talks all sorts of fancy philo terms, but aside from that…..well there is nothing to him other than that.

    But seriously. Pomo is irrelevant. If you are invoking it to explain the world today you are searching for a grand fancy theory to explain the day to day working of the world, which is sort of the critique you have of pomo. Almost nobody knows what pomo, or marx for that, matter said or want. Partially because pomo is a set of ideas. It doesn’t have direction or purpose. Different people use it in different ways. As any grand theory gets distilled down into the world it get changed and spread thin over a really big complicated world that doesn’t give a crap about grand theories.

    Who the heck in the “real world” talks about pomo or marx other then tiny groups of profs and often in actual service of discussing ideas, fringe lefties and , the far largest group, conservatives who obsess over it. I’ve heard more about this guy marx from conservatives then i heard from NY left wingers when i went to grad school in Manhattan. The distant philosophical pedigree of some idea just doesn’t matter. It’s high falutin cocktail party at a ivy kind of talk. It is a great way to tar something to make is scary which is the primary goal.Report

    • Chris in reply to Greg In Ak
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      This, this, and this.

      With the caveat that I know a lot of non-academics who talk about Marx a lot.Report

      • Philip H in reply to Chris
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        lucky you. Those must be interesting conversations.Report

        • Chris in reply to Philip H
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          Usually are, though often contentious. As I’m sure you know, there are many types of leftists, and they’re always arguing over their differences.

          I belong to a couple leftist groups, one quite large, both with a great deal of political education as part of their mission, and people in these groups comprise the bulk of my social circle here in Austin, so Marx is pretty much always in the air.Report

      • Greg In Ak in reply to Chris
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        I’ve had academics talk marx in class and it was all interesting, useful and had nothing to do with modern politics.

        Yeah i think nowadays the kids do talk about marx though i just don’t care. Back in the 90’s in lib NYC, he was the dry white toast of conversations. Conservatives have been great for the sales of Marx’s books.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Greg In Ak
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      The brilliant thing about Critical Theory is that the first gen folks needed the required reading to go through the moves. By this point in the game, you don’t need any required reading at all. You can pick up quite a bit just by watching everybody else go through the motions.

      Sure, if you want to be Martha Graham or Margie Gillis on the dance floor, you probably have to go back and read theory… but if what you want is power? Eh, you can get the gist from twitter.Report

      • Greg In Ak in reply to Jaybird
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        So yeah, none of the theory matters at all. It never mattered whether the boogie man was sharia law or Jade Helm is coming to take the children or a million other Things To Fear!!!!

        One thing talking at the theory level is people never seem to need to define with is just fine and what is Critical Woke Theoretical Miasma that infects all.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Greg In Ak
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          None of the theory matters because both sides do it?

          Well, if I wanted to talk myself out of something being bad, I suppose there are worse ways to do it.Report

        • Chip Daniels in reply to Greg In Ak
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          The red flag of these sorts of panics is that once the boogeyman is declared, the need to actually do the hard work of persuasion is jettisoned.

          E.G.
          Have your of this horrible new theory called XYZ?
          Oh it’s awful and states that the your children are merely foodstuff that can be eaten!

          Wow that certainly sounds bad!

          Oh and hey you know that highway bond initiative on the ballot?
          MmHmm you got it. Inspired by XYZ.

          And you know Candidate Jones’ 12 point plan for downtown revitalization?
          Yep, pure XYZ thinking.Report

          • Pinky in reply to Chip Daniels
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            OK, but what about if we can demonstrate the connection between the theory and the policy? It’s stronger than the 10k things you connect in your Grand Theory of Republican Fascism. I mean, really, you can’t just assert that something is another bogeyman and use that as an excuse not to examine its claims.Report

            • Chip Daniels in reply to Pinky
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              Sure demonstrate for us the connection between CRT and the books about Ruby Bridges and LGBTQ that the Republicans are banning.Report

              • Pinky in reply to Chip Daniels
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                The books that neither of us have read but a small group of Republicans somewhere protested against? Sure, we’re both experts about them, so I’m going to say…page 24. You know the passage I mean.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Pinky
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                You’re demonstrating the point.

                No one on the right has done the work of explaining why Ruby Bridges story is bad.

                But it’s sufficient for them to just point at it and declare “It’s CRT!”Report

              • Pinky in reply to Chip Daniels
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                No one on the right has been talking about Ruby Bridges, except for that one news story you ran across. It’s a bit unfair to hold me accountable for the claims that I’m not making.Report

              • Pinky in reply to Pinky
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                And actually, the Ruby Bridges one interests me. Something you posted about it said that the book under debate is an autobiography. My inclination would be to let most anything through if it’s an autobiography, which can include the author’s opinion. Other books like descriptions of events (I think you’ve mentioned a history of the Tulsa riots at one point), I can easily see how a CRT-influenced writer could tuck crazy opinion into it and how that would be worth blocking, but an autobiography is different.Report

              • Chip Daniels in reply to Pinky
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                Even here, you’re not bothering to create an argument about the 850 actual books but then launching an attack on some imaginary book.

                Why can’t a self described reasonable Republican just say, “Yeah they’re wrong to ban those books”‽Report

              • Pinky in reply to Chip Daniels
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                says:

                What?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Chip Daniels
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                says:

                Can you still buy them on Ebay? Are they available in public libraries?Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Greg In Ak
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      Agreed. Also, the thing with Lindsay is it ain’t new. Already in the 80s you had right wingers on the fringe babbling about how the scary Frankfurt Jews came to the US with the intention of toppling the culture. It was a bit more obvious what they were doing then, but about the same. “Cultural Marxists” or “rootless cosmopolitans”- the conspiracy theories all end up at the same bad place.Report

    • Pinky in reply to Greg In Ak
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      Ideas matter. They have a lot more consequence than you’re indicating. Especially for people who don’t talk about grand theories, but hold a set of unexamined assumptions. It doesn’t matter much that postmodernism had its origin from Marxists, it matters that it’s compatible with most of the errors of Marxism, and indeed encourages them.

      The funny thing is, your framing is postmodern. You’re saying that it doesn’t matter whether this particular thing (postmodernism) is true, but how it’s being used in a power game. It’s like those old Palmolive ads: you don’t realize it but you’re soaking in it.Report

      • Greg In Ak in reply to Pinky
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        It doesnt’ matter if POMO is true because it’s only a theory. All theories are wrong, some are useful. Is it useful? Well lots of thinker types seem to think it’s been helpful and one stop on the evolution of ideas.

        Grand ideas have about a million stops before it gets down the the level of some sort of policy or actual real world thing. There are ton of philo backgrounds to things i do at work. We never talk about that of course because why would we. Did i see the client? Did i get a settlement? How was lunch? Those are real world questions, not did X accord with this or that theory. We learned the theory in school and learned to apply it in life. Very different.

        If pomo is being used to gain power then how that any different from any grand theory in a democracy. Talking about the constitution, offering UHC, raging against immigrants and spending money on roads are all things people do to win elections (power). Each one of the things i just noted could have a variety of philosophical underpinnings. So what? There may be some value is talking about them but for 99% of people they care if they have health care or the damn road is paved regarless of talk about public goods or interpreting the words of the founders. Real world results and actions matter far more( i’m talking light years far) then philosophy. Also each of the four things i just mentioned have multiple arguments for them. Rarely if ever in the world does one thing have one clean and simple philo background.

        The talk about pomo, even if the philo matters, is wildly over simplified and disengaged from applying any idea in the real world.Report

        • Pinky in reply to Greg In Ak
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          I hope you see the problem in using pomo analysis to prove that pomo doesn’t matter as much as power. It’s a bit like saying I don’t have the right head shape to understand phrenology. What am I saying, it’s way worse than that, because it also demonstrates that you are influenced by little philosophical musings in the way you view the world.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Greg In Ak
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      Perhaps this is just a rephrase of your point, but POMO strikes me as a useful tool for critical analysis, but not a very constructive philosophy for everyday living.

      Much as I claim libertarian thought is a useful tool for policy analysis, but not a very effective political philosophy for actually operating a government.

      And I suspect people have similar trajectories when learning and integrating both.Report

      • North in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        As with most things that are uncritically used by the so called Woke it tends to be a useful analytical tool that’s escaped (or was sprung from by desperate academics for short term job benefits) from its academic stall and is now growing like an invasive species of plant in the brains of the internet left while fulfilling no actual useful functions.Report

      • Greg In Ak in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        Agreed. Critical Theory and pomo are a couple solid tools in the box but that is all. Most theories are like that. A good start to figuring out the world but never gone explain it all.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Oscar Gordon
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        I honestly suspect most of us “use” ideas like items in a salad bar. “Oh, I’ll try a little bit of that for flavor and then try a little if that, and then…” The people who try to make one idea fit everything are a bit like someone eating a plate of croutons.Report

        • North in reply to Rufus F.
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          I nearly sprayed coke all over my keyboard over this comment. Warn a fellow!Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to Rufus F.
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          “The people who try to make one idea fit everything are a bit like someone eating a plate of croutons.”

          This is tied into my comment about learning and integrating these ideas. When you first encounter croutons, they are the best thing ever, and it’s all you want from the salad bar. Then you start to realize that croutons are kinda dry, and bland, and a bit of ranch goes well with them. Then you hear that lettuce and ranch are a thing, so you try some lettuce with your croutons and ranch…Report

          • Rufus F. in reply to Oscar Gordon
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            I think that’s probably what happens with college freshmen and some of these theories. I remember a few of them in college who were pretty gung-ho about some idea they’d likely abandon in a year.

            I also remember saying this to someone once about some lousy movie “I’d probably think that was one of the best movies I’d ever seen… if it was the second movie I’d ever seen.”

            Sorry, North!Report

  8. Oscar Gordon
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    Didn’t Stillwater have a post about POMO, some years back.Report

  9. Mike Schilling
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    Without objective truth what do we have to unite us?

    If we’re going to take about attacks on objective truth, we can start with “Who won the 2020 presidential election?” The major political party that lies about that is a much bigger threat that a few college professors.Report

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