Anomaly says academia has been taken over by left-wing cultists dealing in identity politics. But is his opposition fuelled simply by anti-intellectualism?
by Matthew A. Sears, Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of New Brunswick. Follow Matthew on Twitter.
Last week in Quillette Magazine, philosophy professor Jonny Anomaly published the piece “What’s Wrong with the American Academy.” Citing as evidence a protest to a lunchtime talk he was to give at the University of Arizona, Anomaly says the academy has been taken over by left-wing cultists who follow an easily identifiable playbook. It turns out, however, that there are plenty of reasons to protest Anomaly’s work, and he represents a far greater danger to the academy – and society – than his supposedly ideologically possessed detractors.
Anomaly doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t heard before, many times. Urging a retaking of the humanities and a renewed commitment to open and honest inquiry even – or especially – when it’s uncomfortable, Anomaly paints a familiar picture of an academy gone mad, utterly lacking in intellectual humility and curiosity. Why can’t we just engage in the “liberating” pursuit of truth instead of wallowing in “boring and suffocating” political dogmas?
When confronted with free thinkers, Anomaly argues that “progressives” turn to the following “playbook”: 1. Encourage guilt by association; 2. Play identity politics; and 3. Stand your ground. Such strategies seem to bespeak progressives’ dishonesty, anti-intellectualism, and political dogmatism. Let’s see how this playbook stacks up in Anomaly’s case and determine whether or not his opposition relies largely or primarily on rank left-wing prejudice.
First, guilt by association. Anomaly claims that the protest of his talk was inspired by a blog post that accuses him of being an operative of the libertarian Charles Koch Foundation. Anomaly pleads that he is not in fact funded by Koch money, even if the center for which he was working happened to have received a million dollars from the foundation, and that he has no strong feelings one way or another for Koch’s political agenda. While this might be true as far as it goes, it strikes me as more than a little disingenuous. The University of Arizona’s “Freedom Centre”, for which Anomaly was working at the time, was explicitly established to advance a certain political perspective, and Anomaly would have been hired in the first place only if he was of a particular political bent. The work of the Koch Foundation to influence higher education, including in hiring, curricular, and even student government decisions, is well-documented. I am leery of any privately funded centres that aim to advance a certain perspective, since I think such ideological entities preclude genuine curiosity-driven research. But whatever the merits of the Freedom Center, for Anomaly to accuse the other side of being politically driven is, well, a tad hypocritical.
“Anomaly pleads that he is not in fact funded by Koch money, even if the center for which he was working happened to have received a million dollars from the foundation.”
The talk itself was based on a paper called “Public Goods and Education.” Anomaly’s thesis is that even if education is a public good, public financing and government delivery of education create many problems, and alternatives to the public model should be considered seriously. The paper is not by any stretch the most controversial thing I’ve seen, and Anomaly brings up many important critiques of the public model (even if the cure is worse than the disease). But in the context of Anomaly’s larger academic project, the paper becomes much more alarming, and Anomaly is revealed as someone who both actively invites controversy and is worth protesting.
Near the end of the paper, Anomaly argues that government funded and operated schools tend to indoctrinate students in left-wing political positions, which spills over onto college campuses. Critical thinking skills are sacrificed to social justice, and ideas that “conflict with progressive ideology,” such as the cognitive differences between ethnic and racial groups, are shunned. Anomaly concludes that a social justice approach to education, as fostered by the public model, renders students emotionally fragile intellectual conformists. This line of reasoning brings us to Step 2 in the “progressive playbook”: identity politics.
Nothing is presented as quite as dangerous to critical thought, open inquiry, and free speech as identity politics (see Jonathan Haidt’s influential lecture on the subject). To protest someone because his ideas are, for example, racist or sexist, and that he writes callously from a particular position of privilege as a white male, is all too predictable, according to Anomaly, and does nothing to advance the truth. Such a tactic, after all, is what prevents even college students and professors from engaging in honest inquiry and discussion about, say, differences in IQ between racial groups, a blind spot that can be traced back to the ideological possession inculcated by public education. So, if we go bravely forth into open inquiry, without being stifled by identity politics, where would Anomaly’s research take us?
“If we go bravely forth into open inquiry, without being stifled by identity politics, where would Anomaly’s research take us?”
Much of Anomaly’s most recent work examines two related issues, procreation and eugenics. Yes, you read that last part right. In a 2015 blog post, Anomaly asks whether there is a moral right to reproduce: “So, the question is this: to what extent do other people’s interests determine the scope of our right to reproduce? And when, if ever, is it appropriate to use political institutions to limit this right, or to alter the incentives that surround reproductive choices?” Arguing that it is morally justified to consider the long-term interests of society when determining who should or should not reproduce, Anomaly admits that concrete policy proposals are difficult to pin down.
In a lengthier academic article entitled “Public Goods and Procreation”, Anomaly poses the question in this way: “Economists typically see children as private goods that parents create for fun, for companionship, for help in old age, or more generally because they think having children will make their lives go better. But children should also be thought of as public goods since they can have far-reaching effects on the genetic composition, cultural trajectory, and general welfare of future people.” The problem of reproduction is acute in today’s world, since “…there is some reason to be concerned that those best suited to become parents—those with a favorable genetic endowment, and the means to provide a rich social environment for their children—have relatively low birth rates.” Arguing on practical rather than moral grounds that forced sterilization or procreation licensing is too difficult, Anomaly concludes: “The most promising and least intrusive way of preserving the genetic basis of valuable traits may be genetic counseling, and—once our understanding of genetics improves—subsidies for those who wish to use embryo selection or, under certain conditions, genetic engineering to enhance their children.”
Anomaly expands on this line in inquiry in a 2018 article entitled “Defending Eugenics”. Beginning with Darwin himself, Anomaly says, “Darwin argued that social welfare programs for the poor and sick are a natural expression of our sympathy, but also a danger to future populations if they encourage people with serious congenital diseases and heritable traits like low levels of impulse control, intelligence, or empathy to reproduce at higher rates than other people in the population.” He goes further to argue that despite a limited understanding of genetics and language that “may seem callous,” 20th-century court decisions to uphold the right of the state to sterilize, by force, certain undesirable people is morally defensible. As a libertarian, Anomaly does not favor radical state intervention in order to assure that only desirable people reproduce, but would rather we should take full advantage of contraception, genetic screening, and genetic engineering to ensure that those born have “the best chance at the best life.”
“[Anomaly argues] that despite a limited understanding of genetics and language that “may seem callous,” 20th-century court decisions to uphold the right of the state to sterilize, by force, certain undesirable people is morally defensible.”
Anomaly is well aware that a title like “Defending Eugenics” is provocative. He sets out, however, to demonstrate that the moral and scientific bases for eugenics are sound, and that we shouldn’t be held back by the horrors of the Holocaust. After all, Anomaly points out that not only was the Holocaust “inhumane,” but it was also – and this seems to be his salient point – “dysgenic” since Ashkenazi Jews are on average more intelligent and successful than other northern Europeans, and should therefore have been encouraged to reproduce rather that exterminated in death camps. Hitler, it seems, got eugenics all wrong. Tellingly, Anomaly makes no mention of the cognitive and physical disabilities that were also singled out for extermination by the Nazis, that is “Lebensunwertes Leben,” or “life unworthy of life.” Did Hitler get it right in those cases?
Keeping in mind that Anomaly thinks the state should prevent, or at least discourage, the reproduction of those with certain traits, such as heritable diseases, low cognitive ability, and lack of impulse control, let’s turn to one more of his academic articles, a piece from 2017 called “Race Research and the Ethics of Belief”. An early paragraph is worth quoting at length: “…there are many reasons to think that, in spite of these risks [of harm arising from believing in racial differences], refusing to accept evidence for conclusions we’d prefer not to believe carries its own risks—including the forgone opportunity to know the truth, the ability to make rational generalizations, and the ability to use this information for socially beneficial purposes. Stigmatizing such research may also lead it to be done by cranks rather than scientists.” Knowing the truth about racial differences can actually help eliminate stereotypes. Returning to the theme of the Holocaust, Anomaly repeats his line about the high IQ of Ashkenazi Jews, which, if generally accepted, might alleviate the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jews having power and influence because of underhanded schemes. If only Hitler had known the genetic truth, I suppose. Since certain racial groups are also predisposed to certain medical conditions, knowledge of racial traits could have a positive effect on medical practice too.
Leaving aside the dubious science and history behind such “race realism” (about which I’ve recently written; see also), Anomaly plays the standard trick of highlighting only positives, such as the genetic basis for high IQ among Ashkenazi Jews and East Asians, and the athletic abilities of West Africans. He leaves unsaid the logical corollary of, for instance, there being racial groups with lower IQs. Also unstated is the connection between race research and his arguments concerning the benefits of eugenics. If we have a moral obligation to ensure that those with “the best chance at the best life” are born, which are those without negative genetic traits, the conclusions of race research – say sickle cell anemia or lower IQs – have real and, frankly, terrifying policy implications.
“If we have a moral obligation to ensure that those with “the best chance at the best life” are born, which are those without negative genetic traits, the conclusions of race research – say sickle cell anemia or lower IQs – have real and, frankly, terrifying policy implications.”
To recap: We began by considering the talk for which Anomaly was protested by a seeming leftist mob, a talk which laid out the case against public education since, among other negatives, it discourages critical thinking and prevents students from learning about things such as race research. We then had a glimpse at his arguments in favor of eugenics and measures to encourage the right people to reproduce and discourage the wrong people from doing so. We ended with Anomaly’s plea for the utility and good that can come from race research, despite squeamishness about asking such questions. Perhaps, then, the controversy surrounding Anomaly, a deliberately controversial figure, in Arizona was not simply an exercise in identity politics.
Let us conclude with Step 3 of the “progressive playbook”: standing your ground. Campus social justice warriors, in Anomaly’s estimation, refuse to back down, even when there is “an earthquake of evidence” against their position. After pointing out problems with Anomaly’s Quillette article and his wider body of work on Twitter, I was deluged with accusations that I am anti-intellectual because I refuse to engage with or accept what the evidence says. Are social justice warriors like me simply afraid of honest inquiry and the truth? Is “refusing to back down” a sign of insecurity and a closed mind? Not in this case, I would argue.
Rather, I posit that it is Anomaly who has the closed mind. As I’ve already said, the science concerning racial difference (or the existence of races at all) is far from settled. But more than that, I recoil from the arrogance of those who, despite the lessons of history, think that our understanding of genetics is sufficiently strong to justify policy changes, and that they are able and have the authority to define and determine what the “best life” is and who is likely to have it. When a prenatal screening test determined that my first child had a greater than fifty percent chance of having a chromosomal anomaly – the very thing Anomaly would seek to eliminate – my father, a former special education teacher, said, “Some of the best people I know have Down syndrome. All of the worst people don’t.”
Let’s stand our ground against eugenicists who seek to destroy the educational and other structures they think are in their way.