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Mark Goldblatt and the Art of Persuasion

“I cannot argue with his characterization of Foucault, Derrida, and Barthes as a ‘triumvirate of stooges,’ but with me, he is preaching to the choir. How will he convince the postmodernists?”

Mark Goldblatt’s 2022 book I Feel, Therefore I Am: The Triumph of Woke Subjectivism broadcasts exasperation. To a point, I sympathize: He pokes holes in contemporary illogicalities, among them critical race theory, so-called anti-racism, so-called “gender-affirming care,” and postmodern versions of social justice. His logic soars but so does his contempt. He refers, for example, to a trans man as a “faux-male,” and he writes, “if your aunt has balls, she’s your uncle.” If his goal is to persuade, then he should understand how weak a tool is logic, yet contempt is even weaker. He defends “doses of ridicule” as a “method of last resort,” if logical critiques are “toothless.” But ridicule and transcendent humor are hardly the same. The former tends to polarize, and the latter brings people together. Satirizing idiocy is wise; ad hominem attacks are not. What Winston Churchill said of democracy is true of attempts to persuade: namely that no one pretends it is “perfect or all-wise.” It may be the worst form of changing hearts and minds, “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Goldblatt’s first epigraph, from Bertrand Russell’s 1946 book A History of Western Philosophy, emphasizes the danger of losing the sense of truth “as something dependent upon facts largely outside of human control.” Russell struck this note on more than one occasion. In his “Message to Future Generations,” he stresses the intellectual importance of the facts. But he then turns to the moral importance of love, stating: “Love is wise; hatred is foolish.” Love is essential to any form of intellectual or moral persuasion. I wish Goldblatt, with his airtight logic, had remembered this. He resorts to sneering when the wiser course might be to raise questions in a less insulting tone. 

This is, by contrast, John McWhorter’s effort in his 2021 book Woke Racism. Commenting that labels like “social justice warriors” and “the woke mob” are “unsuitably dismissive,” McWhorter observes, “most of these people are not zealots.” He characterizes them as “your neighbor, your friend, possibly even your offspring…friendly school principals…good cooks, musicians.” McWhorter makes a convincing argument for seeing them as neo-Calvinists, with an Elect and a set of beliefs that must not be questioned, but he emphasizes—with gentle humor—their humanity: “They may well even play the ukulele while singing Odetta songs and sipping Knob Creek. Yet this selfsame person will, with no hesitation, sign a letter requesting the firing or public shaming of someone who has contravened the Elect’s doctrine.”

Disputing the provability of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony at the 2018 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, in which she accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her at a party when they were teenagers, Goldblatt writes, “there was more objective evidence against [the Scottsboro boys] than has ever been brought against Brett Kavanaugh.” Shock value. The Scottsboro boys, as Goldblatt notes, were “infamously, unfairly, and falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama in 1931.” Reflecting on Ford’s age at the time of the alleged incident—she was 15—might have led Goldblatt to a more just view. Like many a young teenager, she told no adult about the assault. Her friend Leland Keyser believes Ford’s account but has no recollection of meeting Kavanaugh, either.

It is easy to watch the hearings and imagine a rapey frat boy in Kavanaugh’s past, but there is not the kind of proof that convicted Harvey Weinstein, whose reputation preceded him, and not the kind of proof E. Jean Carroll could summon—and she was in her 50s, and well established in her profession—when future President Donald Trump raped her in a dressing room at Bergdorf’s, after which she immediately phoned friends. Numerous women have testified to the crimes of Weinstein and President Trump. 

Crimes against young teenagers and girls typically do not have witnesses. Ford, a psychologist, spoke in the hearings of the way the hippocampus retains memories and the way the mind assaulted by trauma forgets details. Her scientific knowledge of the hippocampus is, however, not enough to establish infallibility. Her testimony is not enough to convict Kavanaugh. But to refer to her, as Goldblatt does, as “traumatized and confused” is as careless as to suggest that she is completely credible. She took the stand knowing her case would be difficult to prove, and she gave every appearance of telling what she believes to be the truth. Trauma and confusion are not identical; her testimony cannot be reduced to utter unprovability, as Goldblatt implies when he writes, “Credibility must be rooted in something objective and verifiable.”

Women and girls who have been assaulted often remain silent—United Nations figures from 2022 estimate that one in three women experience some form of assault and that fewer than 40% report it. These figures indicate at least the possibility that Ford felt the call of duty to report what she believed had happened. The fact that she could not provide all details of an incident that occurred decades ago does not put her into the category of “confused.” 

This is not to say that her testimony impressed me enough to convict. But Goldblatt’s comparison of Ford to Anita Hill, with the implication that Hill is also not credible, seems gratuitous. Few who sat through the complete coverage of the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings could doubt the details reported by Hill; the Long Dong Silver film and the pubic hair on the coke can are not details a person is likely to invent on the spot.  

Goldblatt’s book opens with what he terms “Our Pontius Pilate Moment,” namely the occasion in the Gospel of John when Jewish leaders bring Jesus to Pontius Pilate, hoping he will rid them of this troublemaker claiming to be the Son of God. Jesus answers indirectly, adding that he testifies to the truth. Pilate answers, “What is truth?” and leaves. Goldblatt takes Pilate’s reply as a cynical dismissal of “the entire notion of truth.” I am not convinced. Pilate may instead be experiencing the same insight voiced by Oscar Wilde centuries later, namely that truth is “one’s last mood.” Truth can be a will o’ the wisp. It may be stable; it does not have to be. Truths arrived at through Hegelian dialectic may be superseded by another dialectic. One cannot prove political and moral truths the way one can—by letting go of an object and watching it fall to the ground—prove the existence of gravity. Defining the “intellectual and sociopolitical schism rumbling American culture” as a fight between truth and power, Goldblatt employs the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s definition of reality: “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” And yes, as Goldblatt writes, the answer to the question, “What is justice?” depends on “what truth is.”

His first chapter explores the history of subjectivism in order to argue that Critical Race Theory, the #MeToo movement and transgenderism are its destructive products. Idealism has a complicated history in philosophy, but in all its forms implies a subjectivity underlying all reality: either the mind, or reason, or the spirit is at the heart of reality, or our knowledge of reality comes through this mental state. Oscar Wilde captured both versions in observations like: “Wordsworth went to the lakes but he was never a lake poet. He found in stones the sermons he had already hidden there.”

In other words, idealism can be congruent with the definition of projection in the Freudian sense, and this seems the closest to what Goldblatt is after. We perceive everything from behind the wall of our personalities, our talents (or lack thereof), and our experiences. In human matters, arousing emotion leads to Rashomon. But perhaps we all see the same gravity when a pencil falls to the floor, and maybe we all see the same movement of the planets through a telescope. Perhaps our emotions are less invested in gravity and the movement of the planets.

Even so, emotions run high in the areas Goldblatt is tackling. Taking us through Plato, Descartes, Berkeley, Kant, Einstein’s theory of relativity, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and various Postmodernists, Goldblatt tries to justify reality as something beginning with perception but not ending there. Sense perception lets us “establish that an object exists,” and if, as he believes, intellect then takes over, we are safely objective. Equating Postmodernism with a form of nihilism on the grounds that it sees logical contradiction as no problem, Goldblatt has a point. I cannot argue with his characterization of Foucault, Derrida, and Barthes as a “triumvirate of stooges,” but with me, he is preaching to the choir. How will he convince the postmodernists?

His final chapters point to inconsistencies in the #MeToo movement and in concepts of race, racism, gender and sexuality. He starts, for instance, with the mantra to “believe the woman or the accuser,” except when “the accuser is white and the accused black…the accuser is male and the accused female” and makes an argument for the movement as a mere “debate tactic.” Here his point remains that if we consider women and men to be rational, then verifiable proof is the gold standard. He deplores the notion of sexuality as a social construct, marshalling the usual evidence from biology and genetics. He might have taken into account the following curious fact: a sizeable  minority of transgender individuals have no problem with acknowledging their birth sex as their actual sex. A transgender man, YouTuber Buck Angel, wonders why the problem exists. Born a girl with masculine characteristics who was attacked for her appearance and behavior, he found it “just easier” to live as a man. He claims never to have doubted that his biological sex is female.

The more I listen to him, the more I wonder whether many transgender persons remain so desperate to convince themselves that they need the outside support of the world. Sexuality is something about which most people have little doubt. The world could tell me I am “really” male, and this would alter neither my knowledge nor the medical reality that I am female. But truth and tact can co-exist. When a female friend asks whether an outfit she is trying on makes her look fat, I know she is aware she looks fat no matter what. She just wants to know whether she might be considered attractive, and the answer is always yes, because who knows? Some find her attractive—especially if she believes herself to be attractive. The transgender person demanding the acknowledgement of their chosen sex as “real” is less delusional than insecure. A truly delusional person harbors no doubts. He will go on insisting he is Jesus Christ or Napoleon no matter what anyone says. 

The transgender person whose insecurities harm others is another story: Lia Thomas, the biological male stealing swimming titles from women, and Laurel Hubbard, the transwoman Olympic weightlifter, have an enormous advantage over natal females. Both went through puberty and retain muscle despite cross-sex hormones. There is no point in telling people like these that they are really men; the point is to draft legislation preventing them from competing as women. 

To return to Goldblatt’s stated strategy of using ridicule where logic fails, ridicule convinces when people make fun of themselves. In the 1999 novel Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the students learn a spell, “Riddikulous,” which—as the name suggests—rids them of a fear by ridiculing it. This self-ridicule—the spell allows the students to discover an absurd feature of their fear—banishes the fear, freeing them. But being ridiculed by someone else, needless to say, has the reverse effect, making a person feel helpless and bullied. Despite the elegance of Goldblatt’s logical argumentation, his book can only appeal to those already on his side.

Melissa Knox is a writer and educator living in Germany. 

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