The Lancet attacks anti-wokeism, and a reader replies

August 19, 2023 • 11:20 am

If there’s one medical-journal doyen who stands out as a parrot of the ideology of the Authoritarian Left (also called “wokeism”), it’s Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet.  Time after time he’s jumped the medical shark and simply published pure ideology in what was once Britain’s premier medical journal (see my posts here and here, for instance), with the second one the subject of a new response by a reader that I’ll put below.

And don’t forget that Horton is responsible for perhaps the most cringeworthy cover of any medical journal in the last three decades:

Here’s that second editorial again, which I criticized at great length in May. Click to read:

Below is Horton’s money quote which is disputed further down.  Horton uses the example of Antonio Gramsci to assert that revolutionary change didn’t come about in Europe because the “dominant group uses culture to exert its controlling influence.”

Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) was arrested by Mussolini’s police in 1926. Imprisoned, he used his time to fill the pages of 33 notebooks. Gramsci sought to make sense of his experience in the vanguard of Italian politics. One question in particular occupied his thoughts. Why did every effort to bring about revolutionary change in Europe fail? His great insight, one largely forgotten today, was to recognise the way in which the dominant group uses culture to exert its controlling influence. If the ruling power can persuade people to share its social, cultural, and moral values, the motivation for radical political change will wither. The culture wars suggest that it is not the economy, stupid. If populist governments can win over the public to their beliefs, progressives have little chance of electoral success. It was this cultural hegemony, according to Gramsci, that explained the resistance to progressive political change in the aftermath of World War 1. And it is the modern struggle for cultural hegemony that explains today’s bitter disputes over race, sex, and gender. For those who wish to advance a more hopeful, compassionate, and liberal vision of the future, we must recognise that the culture wars are not peripheral matters. They are the ground populists have chosen to fight to protect their power and interests. Gramsci, using the military metaphors of his time, called this struggle a “war of position”. It is a war we must not be afraid to engage in.

Here Horton apparently sees the “populists” (read: Tories and Trumpites) as holding back the “progressives”, causing revolutionary change to inevitably fail. He includes the U.S. in his list of places holding down progressivism, apparently forgetting not just the American Revolution, but also revolutions in Europe, like the rise of democracy in eastern Europe in the late 1980s. As I wrote at the time:

So here we have the editor of The Lancet advocating “radical political change” and demonizing “populists” (he’s not specific about who they are, but apparently sees the ruling powers in Britain as members). At the same time, he proclaims his virtue, for he takes pains to assure readers that he is on the side that wants a “more hopeful, compassionate, and liberal vision of the future,” while his populist enemies apparently want the opposite.

Lordy be, the journal just published a response from a reader and colleague, and it’s rational! 

Click to read:

A few excerpts:

 The culture war is not a Manichean object; it needs a highly differentiated analysis. People with left-wing beliefs can be critical of both right-wing and left-wing identitarians. Susan Neiman defends this position (from the left) vigorously, and her recent book should be obliged reading for all. Furthermore, [Horton’s] fragmented and ill-structured piece contained a multitude of mixed-up topics, such as immigration, Sinophobia, and the identitarian movement.

. . . .I am aware that right-wing radicals try to capture the anti-woke movement. These people are alien to enlightened, rational individuals—as is the woke, regressive, capitalist, authoritarian left wing—and must be vigorously opposed. My advice is to focus on publishing first-class medical research, which would do much more to serve the common good. A 2023 article echoes this sentiment, reporting that the general public is losing trust in science when too much politicising and ideologising is published in scientific and biomedical science journals.

Leading medical and scientific journals should focus on what they do best—publishing first-rate, high-quality research. They should deal with political issues only when such issues directly affect medicine and science. They should not express unrelated political opinions and beliefs.

Were I editor of The Lancet, or other science magazines or journals captured by “progressives” (I’m talking to you Scientific American), I’d see my brief as publishing science or medicine, not emitting gusts of hot air about my personal politics. What puzzles me most is that Horton has been editor of The Lancet for a long time, and nobody can apparently stop this Hindenburg from leaking toxic gas. Since when did medical journals turn into venues for reforming society along the lines of the editors’ own ideologies?

Horton is an embarrassment to both his journal and to medicine.

33 thoughts on “The Lancet attacks anti-wokeism, and a reader replies

  1. Revolutionary Progressivism is just a species of Marxism. As such it’s hardly surprising that its proponents would attack reformism, which Marxists have always attacked for distracting from the necessary, violent overthrow of the existing culture (which as Marx saw it is just a superstructure emanating from the bourgeois, Capitalist organization of the means of production). Don’t forget that in the 20s and 30, Stalin attacked the Social Democratic Party in Germany, the one democratic alternative to the Nazis and Communists, as “Social Fascists.” For these people you are either orthodox or you are heretics.

  2. Horton first achieved notoriety in my mind by publishing Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent vaccine-autism paper in the late 90’s and then stone-walling for >10 years in retracting the paper. (Meanwhile, trust in childhood vaccination fell and many died as a result). One thing about Horton- he never apologizes and is never wrong.
    He practiced medicine (saw patients) for a grand total of ~ two years over 30 years ago, and has been a medical editor, writer, and self-proclaimed expert on “medicine and society” ever since. I believe he has championed some worthwhile causes like Physicians for Human Rights, but evidently cannot resist ex-cathedra moral pronouncements on virtually any subject.

    1. Ha! Hadn’t realized that was him. For the editor of a medical journal, that alone should have been a resignation matter, or failing that, a sacking offence.

  3. Horton makes a simple factual error in quoting this question: “Why did every effort to bring about revolutionary change in Europe fail?” Every effort did not fail. In 1917-1921, Lenin & Co. succeeded in bringing the blessings of revolutionary communism to most of the Russian Empire. In 1922, Mussolini & Co. brought their revolution to the lucky citizens of Italy, instituting a regime that G.B. Shaw described as to the Left of the Socialists. The blessings of communist and fascist institutions were subsequently enjoyed by millions of
    beneficiaries, for generations. Although the Italian experiment had little consequence, the Bolshevik experiment engendered a psychology that we still see at work in Russia and,
    perhaps at subtle levels, elsewhere.

  4. I’ve argued elsewhere that many organisations become the vehicle for the careers of managers and how they compete for the top positions. As a consequence, in time, the organisations lose sight of their original purpose as the concerns of their bosses dominate.

    This corruption of purpose is apolitical. If the current elite are progressive it suits the managers to signal their virtue as progressives. If the current elite are reactionary then it suits the managers to signal their virtue as reactionaries.

    It wouldn’t matter so much if the survival of commercial business didn’t become imperilled, or the aims of charities diminished.

  5. Horton says this about Gramsci: “His great insight, one largely forgotten today, was to recognise the way in which the dominant group uses culture to exert its controlling influence. If the ruling power can persuade people to share its social, cultural, and moral values, the motivation for radical political change will wither. The culture wars suggest that it is not the economy, stupid.” I do not know much about Gramsci, but if Horton summarizes accurately his views, then he was certainly correct. Cultural issues are a primary component of fascism and the Republican Party today, in opposition to economic and social class issues. That is, by keeping the masses aroused by cultural issues, they won’t be motivated to challenge the economic and political hegemony of the ruling class, no matter how desperate their daily lives may be. Yet, it is rather bizarre that Horton would discuss this in a medical journal. He should express his views in a political journal. What’s the point of risking the credibility of the medical articles to those that do not accept his political views?

  6. Bravo

    I only recently plunged into Marxist literature, and holy mackerel, this needs to be taught somehow – I thought it was long dead, but no – Marxism is a religion that poisons everything – and can only poison everything.

    Gramsci is on in my pile, so not yet, but I’m “looking forward” to it – as in, pain.

    1. Oo – I’m not sure if this is Gramsci making a good point or not, I didn’t read yet I admit, but I’m getting to it after a thing I have to do.

    2. OK, I owe a brief follow up :

      I read the post here.

      The thing I am confused by was how Mussolini imprisoned Gramsci – I think it is fascism vs. communism. I’m pretty sure Gramsci is Marxist – but… well, I have some Wikipedia-ing to do.

      But – I mean, why would someone use a Marxist argument to argue a political point? Marxists continuously argue that true communism was never achieved because (fill in the blank). Classic maneuver, I need to look it up – dialectical inversion, I think.

      Anyway, I was just “excited” to see Gramsci’s name, is all – because I’m getting to his writing.

      1. You might say that adherents of the pop-Left now drop the name “Gramsci” the way they used to drop the name “Marx”, and have replaced proletariat as the object of their claimed devotion with the intersectional marginalariat. And, just as the old proletariat needed a “vanguard party” to lead it to utopia, the newly found marginalariat needs the services of a vanguard as well, in the widespread DEI officialdom and committeedom.

        1. Yes. Gramsci is extremely hip now- though many who chant his name couldn’t tell you exactly why. Your ” intersectional marginalariat” and the need for a cultural “vanguard” to lead the way out of the Vale of Privilege about describes our current moment.

      2. Yup, Gramsci was a Marxist and founded (and led) the Italian Communist Party. He spoke out against Mussolini and fascism and he was jailed from 1926 until his death eleven years later.

        1. I think I understand the attraction, then :

          Fascism bad.

          Agree with Gramsci to be on the right side of history.

          Disagree with Gramsci and you are a fascist.

      3. Oops, I meant to add that Gramsci’s “History teaches, but it has no pupils” is a pretty good one-liner.

        1. And apparently true enough, otherwise people would have stopped listening to Marxists of all flavors by now.

  7. You don’t say it explicitly, but Andreas Bikfalvi is of course co-author with you on ‘In Defense of Merit in Science’. And bravo to him for both contributions.

  8. Horton’s assertion that progressives are offering a more hopeful future is a tough sell for anyone paying attention. Catastrophizing everything, promoting intractable
    afropessimism, suggesting masses of confused kids will kill themselves if not provided treatment that applies to so few of them and generally proposing a zero sum end game of eliminating approximately 50% of a pluralism is not optimistic. And the tactics of the social justice fundamentalists are far from kind. So backwards.

  9. As usual, our intellectual betters accuse the plebs of false consciousness (Engels) arising from cultural hegemony (Gramsci) to rationalise their failure to persuade us to adopt their utopias.

    After the previous century’s failed experiments, you would think the visionaries might be a little less certain.

  10. Roger Scruton (a political conservative) writes that…

    “Gramsci’s importance for us today lies in his resolute attempt to lift the work of revolution out of the streets and factories into the realm of high culture. He redesigned the left-wing programme as a cultural revolution, one that could be conducted without violence and whose site would be the universities, theatres, lecture halls and schools where the intellectuals find their primary audience. The work of revolution was henceforth to involve an attack on the old curriculum and the works of art, literature and criticism that belonged to it. It was to be a work of intellectual subversion, exposing the power networks, the structures of domination, that lie concealed within the high culture of our civilization, in order to liberate the voices that have been oppressed by it. And such has been the new curriculum in the humanities ever since.”

    (Scruton, Roger. /Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left./ London: Bloomsbury, 2015. p. 208)

    1. Scruton was certainly an original and persuasive thinker, but his conservatism, now, in the Age of Trump, a quaint elitist affectation, seems more cultural than political. Maybe that’s why he understood Gramsci so well.

  11. It’s quite sad, really, that at a time where we need to be depoliticising truth as much as possible that ideologues have no qualms with aligning truth with their personal politics. Of course some truths are naturally going to align with some political positions more than others, but there’s no ideology that captures science 100% and doesn’t extrapolate beyond the scientific realm into moral truths. And, really, when it comes to moral truths, ideologies are always going to be beyond science because what moral truths we hold can never be fully grounded to science (since there is no such thing as ought in nature).

    Those in positions of power within scientific communication would do better to try to depoliticise debates as much as possible because ultimately what we want is scientific acceptance of ideas no matter what side of politics one is on. To push one ideology undermines that dispassionate acceptance of truth.

    1. “(since there is no such thing as ought in nature)”

      Very interesting thought.

      I of course might think I make “ought” decisions all the time, I even consider that I might merely be pushed around into the lesser of multiple “evils” by elusive forces, with agency but no will,… contradictions…

      But it takes a special alchemy to claim the right to power to make such decisions for everyone simply because “you all do the same thing too.”

  12. Two words were notably missing from Horton’s diatribe. They were ‘Rotherham’ and ‘Huddersfield’. Those town names are mostly unknown in the US, but well known in the UK. Of course, I left out Oxford, Rochdale, Derby, Banbury, Telford, Peterborough, Aylesbury, Bristol, Halifax, Keighley, Newcastle…

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