Alan Sokal descries the place of postmodernism in the alt-Right’s denial of facts, but neglects the Left

July 28, 2021 • 11:00 am

Alan Sokal, you may recall, became famous for perpetrating the “Sokal Hoax“, in which he made up a postmodern scholarly article full of bizarre contentions but larded with real quotes, and submitted it to Social Text, an academic journal of cultural studies viewed through a postmodern lens. The article, called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, was accepted, whereupon Sokal revealed the hoax in another article. It was the first demonstration of how a completely off-the-wall article could find favor with postmodern academics. (It’s been repeated with the more recent “grievance studies” hoaxes.)

Sokal, a mathematics professor at University College London and emeritus professor of physics at NYU, has written or co-written two books on the nonsense of postmodernism, and how it damages real scholarship: Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture, and Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (written with Jean Bricmont). I’ve read them, and they’re both good.

In this article on Medium below (click on screenshot), Sokal analyzes whether postmodernism, with its tenet of rejecting all objective truths, was responsible for the alt-Right’s denial of facts: not only the false claims of a stolen election, but the load of misinformation swirling around the Covid vaccines. He concludes that postmodernism is partly but not wholly responsible.

 

Sokal first cites some dismaying statistics taken from two reliable polls: 66-72% of Republicans think that 2020 Presidential election results were either inaccurate or fraudulent, while 47% of Republicans think that the January 6 assault on the Capitol (largely motivated by fraudulent claims of the stolen election) was “mostly a legitimate protest”.  The delusion that led to the assault was, of course, promoted by Trump as well as more than half of the Republican members of Congress.

Sokal diagnoses this as more than “the breakdown of democratic legitimacy”, but also as “the breakdown of consensus of basic facts”: the view that the election was rigged despite solid information that it wasn’t. And he goes further, saying that the factual dispute didn’t really come from postmodernism directly, but from sociologists of science (quotes from Sokal are indented):

. . . But, starting about 40 years ago, a small coterie of social-constructivist sociologists of science began to break this consensus, with radical claims like:

I don’t know how people can believe such things in the face of empirical evidence that makes verifiable predictions about the world, but there are a lot of academics who want to make a splash. (Do these scholars take their sick children to doctors, or to shamans and faith healers?) At any rate, Sokal argues that postmodernism simply appropriated the claims from the sociology of science

These ideas were in turn picked up by postmodernist scholars—mostly in departments of literature, it must be said, not philosophy—and from there percolated into the rest of society. There, they became part of the mother’s milk—the unexamined conventional wisdom—of some sectors of the “woke” left. “There is no objective, neutral reality,” writes Robin DiAngelo, author of the best-selling White Fragility.

But Sokal won’t blame the right’s (I’ll drop the “alt-Right”) denial of facts solely on postmodernism, as he says that that area of scholarship is complex, encompasses many different views, and, at any rate “the path from academic to society at large is even more complex, and has yet to be adequately investigated by sociologists.” That’s certainly true, but there’s no doubt that there is a connection between wonky views in colleges and in society at large. The connection between the media and what’s happening in campus is particularly strong, though strong for Left-wing rather than Right-wing views. This cannot be denied. As Andrew Sullivan observed, “We’re all on campus now.”

Sokal concludes this way:

When all is said and done, postmodernist academics and their activist followers are not to blame for any of the evils of today’s right wing. What postmodernist relativism has wrought is, rather, something more insidious: by devaluing the concept of objective truth, it has undermined our own ability to combat objective untruths—to develop herd immunity to a pandemic of viral disinformation, as one writer eloquently put it.

Now the genie is out of the bottle, and I honestly don’t know how to put it back in.

All well and good, but you may have noticed a problem. It’s not just the Right that’s loath to consider “objective truth”. Think about the assertions made by the “progressive” Left: that everyone is a racist, even if unconscious of it, inequities always reflect current racism, and yes, the Left, loath to look bigoted or supremacist, is particularly susceptible to cultural relativism. The New York Times and other Left-wing papers regularly distort the conflict between Israel and Palestine in favor of the latter. I could go on, but the problem of refusing to face facts isn’t limited to the alt-Right or the Right.

In fact, in their book Cynical Theories, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay pin postmodernism’s devaluation of objective truth on the missteps of the Left, many of whose members prefer to ignore reality in favor of ideology. (We had an article yesterday on the denial of bimodal sex in humans in medicine, a harmful view perpetrated by the Left.)

I’m not saying that one side is much worse in its distortions than the other. Right-wing distortions are large and loud, while those of the left more subtle and numerous. But Sokal, while he might be correct about the history of denying objective fact, mentions the “woke Left” only once, when quoting Robin Diangelo, while he brings up the “right” and “Republicans” twelve times and mentions only the “evils of today’s right wing” in his conclusions. Sokal, of course, is a good classical liberal, much like me, I’d say. But the problem he limns certainly is not limited to Republicans. Much of the entire political spectrum is afflicted with an anti-Enlightenment tendency to ignore facts in favor of ideology.

If that wasn’t a characteristic of the Left, this website woudn’t exist.

62 thoughts on “Alan Sokal descries the place of postmodernism in the alt-Right’s denial of facts, but neglects the Left

  1. The reason that post modernism on the left is more dangerous than the right is that the left controls most of the mass media as well as many university departments, notably the social sciences. Therefore its influence is far greater and more malign than that of the right. The right didn’t invent postmodernism; they simply took political advantage of the loony postmodern left and its incursions against free speech as well as vilification of whites and “white supremacy”. The right and its acolytes will remain loud, ignorant and dangerous but its influence is minimal and will remain so. Meanwhile liberals have been browbeaten into submission and penance, thanks to the left, the media and academia. The right will never succeed in doing more than occasional temporary damage to our
    freedom. The left, however, is already subverting our democratic and Enlightenment values as well as science, and the damage to these will take years, maybe decades, to overcome.

    1. The right and its acolytes will remain loud, ignorant and dangerous but its influence is minimal …

      Yeah, sure, so long as you consider undermining the world’s oldest continuously functioning democracy “minimal.”

      As Sokal posits at the start of his piece, someone as pernicious, but smarter than Trump and with a more adroit legal team, might have pulled it off in the last election cycle.

      Left-wing wokeism appears to get more diffuse the wider it spreads; Trumpism, more distilled.

    2. The post modernism on the Left is mostly subject to discussion and verification as it lies, as you say, in the media and in academia. They may not question it enough but they do question it. On this website, to name just one place. On the other hand, the problem on the Right exists in the political class where they make laws we have to live with and they are trying very hard not to ever let the Left hold power again, at least in the USA. The Right is far more dangerous, IMHO.

      1. Yes. The left at its peak of dangerousness was seen months ago during the worst of the BLM protests. But I don’t know if one can pin much of the looting and car burning on committed BLM types.
        Meanwhile the far right militias are far more more dangerous and well armed.

        1. The perception is that there are vast numbers of Klan-like militia members out here in flyover country. Obviously they exist, but the threat they pose seems vastly exaggerated to me. I don’t know anyone who is a member of such a group, nor would they find much welcome here.
          From a little looking on the web, the largest such group is the “Oath Keepers”, which seem to be outnumbered by the Black Separatist “NFAC” militia, and probably the Marxist ‘John Brown Gun Club” as well.
          But in the larger view, the numbers of members of all such groups are tiny. It is good politics for political types to inflate the threat posed by such groups. A timeless strategy, really. It is also fairly easy in such a large country for groups to portray those in the vast unseen hinterlands in whatever way that proves politically expedient.

          The portrayal of police violence is much the same. A great many people believe that hundreds, if not thousands of unarmed Black people are killed by police annually, and that number dwarfs the number of White people killed under the same circumstances. Conveying that impression is in the interest of some groups.

          On the other hand, people in rural communities do tend to be more conservative and better armed than urban folks, and I believe combat veterans and retired police tend to be conservative as well. I would certainly not equate the very large numbers of normal people in communities like mine to the sort of people who run around cosplaying special forces, or spouting racist views.

    3. In any case, I find it interesting that both sides think their side has a few kooks and extremists but it’s the other side that’s really evil and dangerous. The left will say the right is destroying democracy; the right will say the left is destroying civilization. The left will say right-wing militias, gun nuts, and white supremacists are poised to tear down the government; the right will say left-wing anarchists, rioters, and looters are destroying lives and livelihoods in cities across the country. Both sides say their extremists are few but noisy. Meanwhile the left says racist, militant right-wing extremism is festering and may soon explode; the right says racist, woke extremists are spreading through all our institutions…

      Makes one wonder if the truth is somewhere in the middle.

      1. “Makes one wonder if the truth is somewhere in the middle.”

        Classic both-sides argument. The truth IS somewhere between the extremes but that doesn’t put it in the center.

        1. Solomon’s wisdom wasn’t demonstrated simply by the proposal to cut the baby in half. Any fool with a machete could’ve accomplished that.

          The Nazis wanted to kill all the Jews, the Allies none. Does that make one wonder if the right answer was to kill half the Jews?

          1. Good example, though one has to be careful using “kill half the Jews” most places even hypothetically. It’s refreshing that we can get away with it here.

            When you first mentioned the Golden Mean Fallacy, my first reaction is that you’d given a name to my point but I now realize that they are different points. I was really talking about the use of “middle”, which often is taken to be the same as center but, in this case, should be taken as a point anywhere between the two extremes. This allows the reader to make the mistake of considering it a both-sides argument and the writer to claim innocence.

        2. I suppose I should have written “somewhere between those extremes” rather than “somewhere in the middle”. I didn’t mean the exact center, of course.

    4. the left controls most of the mass media as well as many university departments

      Eh? That is unbelievably bizarre. The mass media here is utterly dominated by the right wing – being largely owned by right-wing business owners and such-like pond life. About the only major media outlet not controlled by the far right is the Beeb, and they’ve got some pretty serious right-wingers in major positions in the business. There are more left-wingers in the production and “creative” departments, but they’re not the people who get to choose which series to produce, and which faces to give screen time to.
      I can’t say that I’ve any idea what the political convictions of any of my university contacts were. Maybe a little more left wing than average, but certainly not far to the left.

  2. The comment by Lorna Salzman is trenchant indeed, and one need only consider two questions in order to understand its value. Which side (left or right) largely controls the means of cultural (as well as academic and journalistic) production, and which side is more likely to accept the insane proposition that it is not only women who can give birth?

    1. Which side (left or right) largely controls the means of cultural (as well as academic and journalistic) production,

      That would be Rupert Murdoch.

      and which side is more likely to accept the insane proposition that it is not only women who can give birth?

      If you’re talking male sex, that would be nobody. If you’re talking male gender, then the proposition is true for trans males.

      1. In the UK, the influence of Murdoch is overrated, and often employed as a bogeyman by some to wave away things they don’t like.

        Revealed today was the news that the Guardian (traditionally liberal, but increasingly regressive leftist) is the most widely used newspaper website and app for news. Fewer and fewer people read Murdoch’s newspapers, and there is no Fox News in the UK.

        And Murdoch has little influence over academic production.

        1. Regarding Murdoch in the UK. He has The Sun, The Times and Sky News The Sun is on the right but now has little influence. The Times is centre/right I suppose. It’s not nearly as ideologically committed as The Guardian. Sky News in the UK is pretty woke. Nothing like Fox.

        2. Revealed today was the news that the Guardian (traditionally liberal, but increasingly regressive leftist) is the most widely used newspaper website and app for news.

          … just possibly related to the fact that it doesn’t have any paywall stronger than “nagware”.
          If that assertion is true, then its’ likely that the Torygraph and Flail are not that far behind.

  3. Even in the quite unlikely event that there would ever be universal acceptance of objective truth, the problem would still exist as to how to interpret the meaning and significance of such truths. You have presented a series of claims that you purport to be objective truth and, therefore, have concluded that the left represents a greater danger to democracy than the right. Even if I should grant that what you say is factually correct, I can present a series of facts that would lead me to conclude the exact opposite of what you predict.

    It seems that most people interested in current affairs possess crystal balls. They are inclined to take a series of facts (objective truths), although selectively, and from them predict the future. Occasionally, time tells what prediction was closer to the truth. So, yes, debate should be based on objective facts. But, this does not prevent very different interpretations of them, the emergence of acrimony sometimes reaching the level of sheer hatred and contempt, and, in extreme cases, the disintegration of society.

  4. The rightwing’s “Epistemic Closure” (which is essentially the same subject as Alan Sokal is addressing in this piece) has been a topic of much discussion, including among principled conservative traditionalists, since Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute began writing about it back in 2010. See, e.g., here and here.

  5. I would say that postmodernism isn’t as much of an issue on the Right, because Post-Modern thinkers aren’t part of the Right’s political culture. If the right is denying facts, I think it is for the reason that they don’t believe them. Conspiracy theories existed long before postmodernism, and are not the exclusive preserve of the Right or the Left. I would say objections about the election and the January 6 fracas are really saying that people are hiding facts and lying, not saying that there is no such thing as truth. The Left, however, holds postmodernism and the relative nature of truth to its breast. The anti-Western left has been losing arguments since the 18th century, and the only way it’s been able to stay afloat is to pretend that facts don’t matter. What they mean in practice is that only their facts are true, and their opponents’ aren’t.

    1. “If the right is denying facts, I think it is for the reason that they don’t believe them.”

      From what I’ve observed if the right is denying facts, it’s because they simply don’t like those facts or, in the case of right-wing politicians and media, its because they benefit (financially and otherwise) from the alternative realities they create.

    2. Perhaps the Right doesn’t directly adopt postmodernism into their thinking, they seem to have adopted the postmodern idea of making one’s own truth. This is at the heart of both-sides arguments and Trump’s Big Lie. GOP politicians are busy passing laws at the state level to increase voters’ confidence in election systems when it is they who have undermined them. The Right is drawing on the postmodern set of ideas but just aren’t giving the references.

  6. I think maybe some people overthink some of this alt right or left stuff. Humans have always been subject to believe things without any evidence and have done so in great numbers for many years. It is called religion. What is the driving force for this delusional belief – Money. If you take away the money where would religion be? So now let’s look at the alt right cult of Trump. It is nothing more than a large con game and what is the driver. For the politicians it is their jobs. Go against the cult delusions and you are out of a job. So control of the republican party was the first objective. Once this was complete and money. was the primary motive here, just like in religion all that is left is the cult. The other factor that is underplayed in this process is the social media platforms. First you have humans ready to believe damn near anything and then you pound the message into their brains with social media. Having a major network on you side to promote the rubbish is also very helpful.

    The, I got robbed by fraud in the voting is a great money maker. Millions have been sent to Trump since the election to help in the fight to win the crooked vote back. Again the real objective is money, always money and more of it. During his four years in office everything was about money and putting more in his pocket. Total corruption is what Trump is all about and working the con is always the first step. He did not learn all of this from a book, he does not read them.

    1. Money, of course, but also one more motivating factor: status, especially in academe and in the “information” professions. There it is, money and status, driving the delusional beliefs on the Left.

      In that connection, the tsunami of D/E/I rituals, the increasing ubiquity of Diversity Statements, and the attacks on meritocratic standards, are also vehicles for the pursuit of money and status by otherwise unqualified but ambitious careerists. This side of the woke Left’s agenda (beside the denials of basic Biology in regard to the X and Y chromosomes) is what resembles
      so closely the adventure of Lysenkovshchina in that former fabled land across the sea.

      1. My understanding is that Lysenko’s assault on Soviet science would not have happened without support from the political powers. A good example of how bad ideas have maximum impact when politicians get a hold on them.

  7. If you can find Transgressing the Boundaries, it’s worth a read. Very well done. He carefully trashes postmodernism’s critics, which probably went far toward getting support for the project.

  8. Not sure about postmodernism’s contribution to the alt right. Maybe. Social media in general has greatly contributed to the spread of misinformation and it has a tremendous number of clueless consumers. I would argue that has caused its spread far more than postmodernism. The link between postmodernism and the left is much easier to argue, because a lot of the current leftist ideology was explicitly mentioned in postmodern texts.
    Above it was argued that postmodernism on the left is more dangerous, but I wouldn’t really frame the problem around which side is worse. To me, it just seems like a lot of bad things working together to make things worse. Also, watching the capitol riot footage was pretty disgusting and the fact that a lot of republicans are ok with it is pretty insane. On the left, the constant framing of every issue as either racist, or anti-women, or anti-transgender, is beyond annoying. Obviously these issues exist and should be discussed, but there are other issues too. But then if you focus on other issues, you are anti-whatever they want you to be. Authoritarian tendencies seem to be sprouting up.

  9. Maybe it’s just my social circle but everyone seems to be talking about the alternative facts of the left, so much so that the extreme left is associated with this trend of choosing your own reality. It’s refreshing for me to see someone demonstrating that the right does it as well. I’d like to see more of this.

  10. Amen to Lorna Salzman’s post. The influence of postmodern memes is now so pervasive in academe that airheads of the Robin DiAngelo variety graduate simply assuming, because everyone in their circle says it that “There is no objective, neutral reality”. [The truly bizarre feature, as our host points out, is that these airheads still take their sick children to doctors. But, then again, logical consistency is just a social construct too, isn’t it?]

    Culpability for this disaster lies squarely with the administrations of colleges and universities. It is they who allowed postmodernist nonsense to proliferate as an academic enterprise, although they would have at least hesitated about allowing academic departments to broadcast Astrology,
    Dianetics, psychokinesis, or moon worship. And after that, it is they who oversaw the establishment of assorted Critical grievance studies, which
    merged the culture of complaint (as Robert Hughes put it) with vapid postmodernist jargon.

    Rarely has the social influence of the ivory tower been demonstrated so
    clearly and so disastrously. When the culture of the West collapses into a new dark age, we can lay the blame on a couple of generations of Deans, Associate Deans, Provosts. and committees in the groves of academe.

    1. What you say here is exactly why I don’t think these postmodern themes will last. As soon as they meet the real world, they fold. The mainstream has just started to understand what they are all about and are horrified. These themes, if adopted, would destroy centuries of progress. The real world is starting to fight back. The CRT controversy between parents and educators is just the start.

      1. Absolutely, this point cannot be stressed often or strongly enough. Apocalyptic thinking has its strange comforts, but as I see it the pendulum is already turning into a wrecking ball going in the other direction. As outfits like FIRE and the Academic Freedom Alliance start scoring more and more legal victories, and the power of lawfare against woke policies becomes evident even in the halls of academia that spawned those policies, there’s going to be real sea change in cultural politics, and it’s one that pretty much everyone on this site will welcome, I think.

          1. I hope so too. But there is a problem, nonetheless. The Lysenkovshchina was imposed by
            General Secretary Stalin (the greatest genius of the age) and his subordinates, to be sure.
            But Soviet Biology in academia was poisoned by the opportunists who used the state-mandated doctrine as a career vehicle. [Anna Krylov mentions this factor briefly in her
            splendid article on the dangers of politicizing Science.]

            In the West, we have the fascinating phenomenon of a new Lysenkoism proliferating in academia without state imposition, and available as a new vehicle for a class of careerists. I agree that the intellectual tide may be on the verge of turning, but there is already a new mandarin class of wokies in academic administrative offices, operating as “consultants”, and in the offices of media and publishing companies—all of whom have their class interests to protect and (if possible) expand.

            1. I see the parallels but support by a Stalin or a Trump is crucial these things going far into society. We are pushing back against the Woke careerists and there’s nothing really stopping us. We can file lawsuits, write articles, etc. Sure, the Woke will fight back but that’s very different from having your career or your life destroyed from someone ultimately in charge. For the most part, our war against the Woke can still be fought by convincing regular people that they have bad ideas. Their bad ideas have spread as much as they have because they haven’t really met the opposition in the real world. For example, some colleges will drop entrance exams. They will see their reputation, and that of their graduates, slowly decline. Unfortunately, it will take years but those colleges that still accept entrance exams will benefit. Similarly, it will become known which companies install uber-Woke policies and they will become places where smart people won’t want to work. Without the leader dictating how things are going to be, it is simply a battle of ideas. We can still lose such a battle of course but at least we get to fight.

              1. Yes—the critical thing is to keep fighting. Illegitimati non carborundum—don’t let the bastards wear you down—is ever the watchword.

                Definitely, this battle will play out in K-12 most sharply: never, ever come between ambitious parents and their children’s legal/medical/financial career prospects. They will eat the likes of Robin DiAngelo and her educrat homunculi alive, and not even bother spitting out the bones.

  11. It’s refreshing for me to see someone demonstrating that the right does it as well. I’d like to see more of this.

    You can see all you want on C-SPAN, pablo, pretty much every time a Republican takes the floor in congress. 🙂

  12. I have no clue how much postmodernism has to do with denial of reality on the right, but it doesn’t seem like it could be much. It seems to me that the biggest causal factor is Big Lie tactics by conservative politicians, primarily the Republican Party. Karl Rove specifically recommended this as a primary tactic for the RP to get Bush Jr into the White House and to keep the RP in power and the RP has continued to use it as their primary tactic. Of course this tactic was famously used by the Nazis too, but it is older even than that.

    I don’t see how Postmodernism could have much to do with it. The perpetrators of Big Lie tactics could care less about philosophy. It’s simply a useful tool to gain political power and with a long history of success. The RP has been using it in constantly increasing boldness for decades as they’ve learned that there is no lie so ludicrous, so blatantly contrary to readily available evidence, so obvious or so craven that their base won’t swallow it and even many fence sitters and conservative-lites will sip at it. Now the detachment from reality is so great that Qanon conspiracy theories are actual for real mainstream beliefs among a majority of the RPs constituency.

    I completely agree that denial of facts by those on the far left is a serious problem that needs push-back and criticism and I’m glad to see that Jerry does that. But the claims by some, even commentors here, that denial of reality is worse on the left, or more of a danger, or that it’s doing more damage to society? That seems divorced from reality to me. I mean way out there.

    1. Wikipedia on postmodernism:

      “Postmodernism is an intellectual stance or mode of discourse defined by an attitude of skepticism toward what it describes as the grand narratives and ideologies of modernism, as well as opposition to epistemic certainty and the stability of meaning.”

      I think the Right is making use of these ideas for political advantage though perhaps they don’t acknowledge or know their origin. Though it wouldn’t surprise me if Karl Rove has studied postmodernism. They realize the power of words and a consistent point of view to establish a convincing narrative even though it is divorced from objective truth. This has surely happened throughout human history but perhaps postmodernism does a better job of explaining it.

      1. Postmodernism is entirely legitimate as an artistic movement qua artistic movement — including in the study of literature in university English departments.

        It has never proved itself to be of any value in the social sciences (much less the hard sciences).

      2. Yes, that sounds about right. Some conservative think tank wonks and strategists like Rove might have encountered Postmodernism in some form in an academic setting but the typical RP politician very probably has not, and could care less. Of course, that doesn’t mean the PM has not had an influence. But yeah, I think Big Lie and gas lighting is as old as civilization.

  13. It’s easy to think that one political sphere has particular problems that only it embodies, rather than these problems being a part of humanity as a whole. It’s almost taken for granted by those on the Left that things like nationalism, patriotism, traditional religiosity, etc. are acts of virtue signalling, though not called that. Same with the political correctness stuff, where the right would monitor speech for blasphemy, offensive speech, civility, etc. And in terms of their own narratives, the right has its own views on history, science, cultural cohesion, and what subjects are taboo to explore. Yet these are all things those on the right accuse the left of – often rightly – without the slightest degree of self-awareness.

  14. Fascinating discussion, my friends and comrades! I’d boil it down to the fact that we who are committed to classical liberalism must fight authoritarianism on two fronts, on the Right and the Left, with, IMO, the Right presenting the more immediate danger because of its gun fetish. Riffing on kelskye’s point that “these problems [are] a part of humanity as a whole,” I believe that these two versions of authoritarianism are at their cores religious. The MAGA faction is a cult worshipping Tr*mp as their God-King. Woke ideology is, as John McWhorter has pointed out, a crypto-religion that demands unquestioning conformance to its creed. To win these fights on both fronts, we must seek to disabuse our fellow humans of our natural tendency to, as Daniel Dennett would put it, believe in belief.

  15. The right wing craziness is built on conspiracy nonsense. And this is because of the theory of evolution. For decades the far right (fundamentalist Christians for the most part) have seen evolution as a conspiracy of the left to destroy their religion. All biologists are in on the conspiracy. As are astronomers and geologists and people who do radiometric dating. And others. It is now easy to make anything a conspiracy to these nuts as long as it agrees with their ideological agenda. QAnon, birthers, The Big Lie, it all follows from their decades of evolution conspiracy nonsense. Evolution primed the pump decades ago.

  16. I wouldn’t put so much of the blame on universities. I believe that the unintended consequences of specialized media outlets that sometimes cater to outlandish or quite simply factually incorrect views, stories have hurt our nation.

  17. I doubt Sokal would be happy with being characterized as a classical liberal. He is a socialist, perhaps even a Marxist. He refers to himself as an “old Leftist” and often cites the fact that he moved to teach at the National University of Nicaragua in order to support the Sandinista government.

  18. I see a lot of comments that affirm the premise of the blog post that the “left’s” distortions are as significant as the right. In the comments, I do not see many examples of this, other than some vague allusions to a unspecified group of people who are militant in their opinions. What are some concrete examples of this alleged insidious “new Lysenkoism” from the left that is undermining truth and destroying universities? If there is indeed a “woke authoritarianism” which is intolerant of any different viewpoints, that sounds like the opposite of the postmodern relativism that it is taken to be representative of.

    How does one define a “post-modernist”? If the term can be collapsed entirely with the concept of relativism and completely removed from its historical origins, why not abandon it entirely and just say “relativism” instead?

    I understand that people may find certain advocacy groups annoying, but how is adopting a strident tone in demands for racial justice supposed to be equivalent to the levels of manipulation and reality distortion that exist with the contemporary right wing? Are people really willing to put “wokeness” on the level of climate change denialism, election fraud conspiracies, COVID denialism, anti-vax attitudes, intelligent design? Seriously, have the people commenting here actually looked into the central beliefs of the Qanon conspiracy? Is that insane belief supposed to be equivalent to the notion that racism can be embedded in our institutions and reproduced by them? Or to take at face value Coyne’s suggestion that the NYT favors coverage of Palestine over Israel, is the idea that a paper would take one side over another in a complex geopolitical conflict supposed to be the on the same level as the widely held belief that Hollywood, the Democratic party, and the Republicans are part of a secret cabal which harvests “adrenachrome” from children to get vampiric power, and that many high-profile politicians have already been executed at Guantanamo Bay and are represented in the media as holograms?

    Sokal mentions a quote from Robin D’Angelo’s book alluding to the idea that reality is not neutral, and it seems as though this quote is doing a lot of heavy lifting in the comments as a stand-in for the purportedly postmodernist beliefs of “the left.” The connection seems pretty tenuous — D’Angelo comes from the world of Human Resources / management diversity trainings. I know a few Marxists and can’t remember a time where they suggested that the solution to the alienation and dispossession of workers is to mandate more workplace trainings on what language they should be allowed to use at work. I think it is necessary to have some general working definition of “the left” that distinguishes it from corporate social responsibility diversity efforts, some of which can be hostile to the very ideas that the left is trying to advance.

    Carvaka already mentioned above that Sokal identified himself as a leftist and has explained that he was motivated to attack postmodernism partly as a mathematician committed to truth, but also partly has an leftist who did not believe that postmodern theories of “deconstruction” were supposed to advance the causes of the working class. The persistent idea that the Sokal hoax demonstrates that an undifferentiated “loony left” is hostile to facts is itself a distortion often based on what the right wingers or the “classical liberals” want it to mean.

    Those who make historically-informed critiques about particular ideas which have noxious consequences for groups of people (for instance, ideas related to racial superiority, or rigid biological determinism related to gender), and who argue for a more rigorous inquiry into those subjects are not necessarily denying that there is an objective reality. If anything, they are often trying to get us closer to an understanding of that reality by pointing out particular instances where scientific concepts may have been shaped and distorted by biases.

    1. It is a weak defense of wokeness to say that it isn’t as bad as global warming, QAnon, etc. While true, it seems to present a false choice. I’m against wokeness AND global warming, as I suspect are virtually all the commenters here. More importantly, these issues don’t really intersect all that much. When we discuss wokeness, it doesn’t mean we’re neglecting global warming. Instead, it means that people here have more to say about wokeness because they feel they might play an important role in the fight against it. Meanwhile we do what we can to fight global warming, mostly by voting for politicians that recognize the problem and are willing to join the fight.

      1. My comment is not about being “for” or “against” — we can leave that aside for the moment.

        My comment is about the level of reality distortion in each category. The original blog post is not “is the right or left good or bad” but a critique of Sokal’s analysis it’s about the level of reality distortion involved in each type of thinking.

        My point is, whatever your personal opinion is about “wokeness” (for what its worth, it rubs me the wrong way as well), any distortions of truth involved in that area do not even approach the absurdity of climate denialism, Qanon, and the like.

        So my point is simply to say, the reason that Sokal called on the “post-truth” of the alt-right rather than the left is because the two categories are not equivalent in that area. You can dislike wokeness, decry certain viewpoints as totalitarian in outlook (and I would agree that they are), but it is pure sloppy thinking to collapse “wokeness” into a broader undifferentiated category of “postmodernism / leftism” and then say that broader category is that is on the same level of “post-truthiness” as the litany of insane beliefs on the right that I listed above.

        It’s not a false “choice” because its not a choice at all, just an appeal for some more analytical rigour.

    2. Yes, wokism isn‘t “left“ but it gets boring to write it in every second post. The right wingers, and even Jerry here often equivocate around the term “the left”. In most cases it is American vernacular to mean “Democrats” (the party, their voters, media).

      Shrill and loony identitarian ideas are equivocated with extremism, and then this idea of “far left” is used as a pivot to mean Cold War era (soviet) communism, or Marxism, or labour — very different things. Then, this supposed “far leftism” is seen everywhere, is characterises as dangerous or annoying, with the aim to argue for less of it.

      While a “woke” style surveillance capitalism looks like a possibility (if not already implemented), the US is not at risk to get basic labour improvements or health care as in other modern democracies.

  19. First of all, I couldn’t help commenting that EVERY ELECTION, there is fraud which SOMETIMES affect the results. There is historical evidence of recounts which have switched elections. And some jurisdictions have more fraud than others. The Philadelphia district has notoriously lost many lawsuits, and it’s widely acknowledged that there is often fraud which generally supports the left.

    That being said, I agree that a law of physics cannot be changed arbitrarily. Methods of gathering data and testing theories are there for a reason. We’re living in a strange world where people can negate any science which does not support their world view, or which makes them uncomfortable.

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