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Bullshit, Branding and CRT
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As a professor who teaches policy students how to write about public policy, I spend a lot of time talking about argumentation, which is partly about how to write concisely and clearly, and partly about supporting claims with evidence that holds up to scrutiny
Its disconcerting to see the way in which language is abused in the policy domain. Let’s start with an example.
What? What does this mean? And more to the point who is the person reading, nodding along, saying “yes, now I understand”?
I don’t mean to pick on Douthat, who is an accomplished writer by any objective criteria (though I can’t help but share this parody):
There is a word for this sort of language: bullshit.
It is different from standard political bullshit, where the speaker at least wants to be understood, and thus seeks to simplify complex issues. Language here obfuscates rather than clarifies. It sounds like a grad school philosophy student hoping that the use of dense language will disguise the paucity of the argument.
Academics like me are frequently accused of engaging in such bullshit. And no doubt we are sometimes guilty. I don’t understand why philosophical treatises are often unreadable. Sometimes academic jargon reflects technical language that conveys well-understood meanings to a niche audience. And sometimes, as when Justice Roberts accused us “sociological gobbledygook” it is less about the use of impenetrable language than a desire to ignore statistics.
But as an academic who is skeptical of bullshit, and interested in policy, I feel especially qualified to weigh in, and try to understand the purpose of such bullshit.
Now, there are many types of bullshit. I’m interested in how bullshit is used to shape policy beliefs. This form of bullshit is not just culture war one-upmanship. It is intended to shape how you think about policy actors, their intents, what your interests are and how you should respond. And in some areas, it has been very successful.
Let’s take some examples from the field of education, and in particular descriptions of something you have probably heard about a lot lately: Critical Race Theory (CRT).
When we talk about the diffusion of policy ideas, it helps to try to nail down basic things like key actors, means of dissemination, and sponsors. For example, CRT as an intellectual movement is tied to a fairly identifiable group of mostly Black scholars in the 1970s and 1980s. A good, factual, account comes from Jelani Cobb’s profile of Derrick Bell. CRT as political brand is more recent, driven by conservative policy entrepreneurs. Here is another fact-based account of that process.
By contrast, here is the origin story of CRT offered by James Lindsay, a premier bullshit artist.
What is the point of this manner of patter? Here bullshit is intended to convey a patina of sophistication, to reassure the reader that “this is a smart man, an intellectual.” Of course, the audience has to want to be persuaded. So motivated reasoning plays a role. In other words, the most likely person to buy this argument is not someone deeply familiar with Hegel, but with someone who wants to persuaded that there is some intellectual justification for their prior beliefs.
Bullshit is key to establishing conspiratorial beliefs. It helps to convey a shadowy elite, working behind the scenes, over multiple generations to establish a world order. This becomes more explicit when the Hegelian bullshit is dropped.
The paranoid style of American politics and modern-day populism rely on this key element: the idea that a secret cabal is using government power to brainwash and disempower the common folk. Given that we are at a highwater mark for conspiratorial populism, this is an unusually good moment for bullshit.
Of course, once you start down this road it leads you to dodgy places. For example, a reoccurring theme is that the intellectual roots of CRT were seeded by Jewish intellectuals, the ominous sounding Frankfurt School.
The value of bullshit in constructing the conspiratorial claim can also be demonstrated by its absence. The underlying claim, shorn of bullshit, sounds bad and borderline anti-Semitic. An example is Chuck Woolery’s summary, which came pretty close to “Say what you will about the tenets of national socialism, but at least it excludes CRT.”
Bullshit provides passwords, coded language that signals in-group membership. Even if you make the occasional slip-up, such as writing a wildly successful book where you describe the Frankfurt School as the Franklin School, its close enough for an audience familiar with the bullshit.
In-group membership requires an out-group. This is not just simply the targets of your bullshit. Your greatest ire must be reserved for anyone who challenges your bullshit. See James’ accusatory response to being taking to the cleaners by Marc Lamont Hill. Hill has the patience and knowledge to provide context to the effort to connect the Frankfurt School to the CRT movement.
It’s worth pausing to again remind ourselves that this is not just about bad tweets. Lindsay is credited with pushing efforts to ban CRT and diversity training. Levin has sold more than 1 million copies of his book and is a regular Fox contributor.
One of the other main policy entrepreneurs in this space is Christopher Rufo, who is credited with increasing the salience of this issue by making President Trump a vocal ally. Rufo is not as invested in the version of bullshit that relies on the Frankfurt School. In this, he is different from Lindsay, and that difference is instructive. Rufo is instead focused on branding.
Like the villain at the end of a movie desperate to show how smart he is, Rufo explains the plot. The purpose of bullshit is both branding – to brand obscure ideas as scary and crazy - and rebranding - to frame existing efforts at discussing race and diversity under the scary and crazy brand.
Rufo has helped push federal executive orders and bills and model legislation in multiple states to govern speech in government, private contractors, corporations, higher education and schools. In some cases, the government guidance is relatively spare, but even in these cases, legal ideas such as “divisive concepts” are vague enough to have a chilling effect. In other cases, the CRT brand gives activists and policymakers a basis to sniff out not just CRT, but CRT in its clever disguises, such as words like “social justice”, “equity”, “diversity”, or “restorative justice.”
As Rufo indicated, the purpose of brands is to be broad enough to fit lots of ideas into. Levis just doesn’t sell jeans. CRT is elastic enough to incorporate other concepts that conservatives oppose. The bullshit is essential to the rebranding effort. In enables the suspension of disbelief required to go along with the idea that the school principal forming a diversity, equity and inclusion task force is really a hidden soldier in army of the Frankfurt School, or an agent of Karl Marx!
Brands facilitate communication. There is a limit to the marketability of bullshit. Not many people want to hear a long discourse on Hegel for the same reason most people haven’t read Hegel. It’s boring. A branded idea can be swiftly communicated to your audience without a backstory. Hence, a 40-year old obscure concept went from being mentioned 132 times on Fox in 2020 to nearly 2000 times in the first six months of 2021. This explosion is not about what CRT scholars have started doing. Instead, it reflects the successful branding an rebranding effort of Rufo et al.
Converting bullshit into a brand simplifies things. Brands create heuristics that upend rational thinking. Heuristics are cognitive shortcuts that means we don’t have to think through a problem, or critically assess a source of information. Once we are cued by the appropriate heuristic - CRT! - we accept or reject uncritically the information that follows.
Brands make money. The people who have most profited from the popularization of CRT are not its mostly Black originators, but white conservatives who have denigrated their work. Rufo has catapulted himself into the forefront of the conservative establishment. Lindsay has built a career as an anti-woke author. New think tanks are popping up based on raising funds off these issue, including veterans of the culture wars who are retooling their pitch to take advantage of the hot new brand. “Concerned parents” appearing at school meetings or on Fox to protest CRT are often movement conservatives with deep financial connections to the Republican Party, or media personalities seeking to build conservative audience.
It’s not just CRT. “Cancel culture” went from being a Black culture punchline to a largely conservative trope. The call to “stay woke” again finds its origins in Black culture, only to be appropriated by mostly white commentators making a living by mocking social justice movements.
Victor Ray, a sociologist at the University of Iowa called Douthat out on this.
There is something discomforting about the spectacle of a group of white conservatives profiting from the intellectual capital of Black culture while also effectively saying: “No, these ideas do not mean what their proponents say. They say they are fighting discrimination, but they want to discriminate against us. They say they want to reveal the truth but they are trying to brainwash our kids.”
Bullshit denies the idea that there is any simpler alternative explanation. In particular, CRT bullshit conveys systemic racism as a figment of the CRT plot, rather than straightforward and observable outcome. Notably, the anti-CRT crew evade discussions of social science that provides the sort of analysis - rational! numerical! - they should value. That’s because such forms of knowledge offers ample evidence of structural causes of racial outcomes. Best then, to stick with vague philosophical and historical claims of Lindsay, or Rufo’s anecdotes about some excessively woke diversity training.
Again, this is not just culture war nonsense. Nineteen states have introduced or passed anti-CRT legislation. It is the animating force behind the parent screaming at a school board meeting that their child is being brainwashed, or recruiting that parent to become a school board member. Being anti-CRT has become a central theme in Republican politics, a motivating factor for supporters.
It has been institutionalized into the conservative intelligentsia. For example, the Heritage Foundation’s primer on CRT acknowledges role of Black scholars, but again insists on the connection to the Frankfurt School and Marxism. It extensively quotes Lindsay and Rufo. It proposes that CRT ideas “led to a devastating, fatal result in Parkland.”
Yes, that’s right. Arguably the most influential think tank of the Trump era alleges that a white student who etched swastikas on ammunition that he used to murder other students was somehow driven by CRT. Of course, CRT and wokeness have also been blamed for both the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent failures of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan 20 years later.
Which seems like exactly the sort of absurdity you end up when you start with bullshit.