In an interview with Psychology Today last week, Claire Lehmann, the founder of the libertarian-leaning, academia-focused digital magazine Quillette, suggested that the website was a refuge from the political correctness and leftist bias that allegedly plague both academia and the mainstream media.
“Local cultures on many campuses are not conducive to risk-taking and creativity in all sorts of ways, from over-bureaucratization to oppressive social and speech norms,” Lehmann, an Australian writer who claims she was “blacklisted” by local media for being critical of feminism, said. “So my goal with Quillette is to provide a ‘safe space’ for people, academics or otherwise, who have novel ideas but might feel stifled by such norms.” In Lehmann’s view, college campuses — which were, in the distant past when populated only by rich white people and descendants of Puritan settlers, home to lively debate — need to be reclaimed from the bureaucrats and administrators who stifle ideological dissent and punish those who refuse to toe the illogical, irrational line of political correctness. Universities, Lehmann claims, “have abdicated their mission of preserving and transmitting the cultural capital of western civilization.” At the same time, elite universities — not only the Ivy League, but also small liberal arts schools — “seem more invested in being finishing schools for the wealthy than in preserving the integrity of their liberal arts courses.” Higher education is out of touch, Lehmann suggests, not only with the average American but with rational thought itself. Quillette is here to save academia from itself.
Unsurprisingly, Quillette has become a hub for reactionary thought. The website, which started publishing in 2015 and is funded by a modest Patreon account, didn’t receive much attention outside academic circles until August, when it published four scientists’ responses to former Google engineer James Damore’s memo lambasting the company’s diversity efforts. Three of the four agreed with Damore. “The author of the Google essay on issues related to diversity gets nearly all of the science and its implications exactly right,” wrote Rutgers psychology professor Lee Jussim. “As a woman who’s worked in academia and within STEM, I didn’t find the memo offensive or sexist in the least,” said writer and neuroscientist Debra Soh. University of New Mexico psychology professor Geoffrey Miller said “almost all of [Damore’s] empirical claims are scientifically accurate,” and praised him for making his case “carefully and dispassionately.”
Lehmann claimed that her decision to publish scientists agreeing with Damore led to “a successful denial of service attack” against her website, presumably by triggered lib bogeymen — or in academic parlance, deniers of facts, reason, and the rich western tradition of debate — who couldn’t handle The Truth. (It’s worth noting that Hillary Clinton superfan and Verrit founder Peter Daou made a similar claim after his own website crashed. In both cases, it’s likely that the website simply received more traffic than it was equipped to handle, but for a movement to be subversive, it must be constantly under attack by a mythical enemy.) Quillette quickly began attracting fans, including Commentary editor John Podhoretz, Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison, professional troll Cassandra Fairbanks, and Julian Assange.
Writers including the New York Times’s David Brooks, CNN’s Marc Randazza, and USA Today columnist Cathy Young cited the Quillette piece in their own defenses of Damore, noting that objective science and facts are on the young engineer’s side, even if the PC-fueled “outrage machine,” as Randazza called Damore’s critics, isn’t. Brooks was slightly more generous to Damore’s detractors, writing that “Damore is describing a truth on one level” while “his sensible critics are expressing a different truth, one that exists on another level,” Brooks wrote (these levels, of course, depict how capital-T truth tends to favor white men over women and minorities). “He is championing research; they are championing gender equality.” And even though the memo “has its flaws,” Young wrote, some of Damore’s insights and suggestions “are excellent and validated by the reactions to the memo itself,” i.e., “overreaction” from the left.
The way these people defend Damore against his critics is telling: Damore was “careful” and “dispassionate,” as Miller said. Meanwhile, Brooks’s evaluation of the memo’s aftermath can be summed up as “the facts don’t care about your feelings, snowflake” written for the Times’s audience of sensible urban liberals who think those dang college kids have gone too far. Radazza took it a step further, claiming Damore’s critics exhibited “a lynch-mob mentality fueled by intolerance for different points of view.”
The best way to get a sense of the typical Quillette reader is by perusing the comments section under any essay, especially those about feminism and the leftist threat to western civilization. Quillette’s readers see themselves as inheritors of the western tradition of dispassionate, boring debate instead of what they likely are: people trying to kill time at work by sounding off in the comments. They hate “leftist identitarians” and “corrosive marxists” who ruin this dispassionate, boring debate by deigning to have an emotional stake in the subjects they study. They resent writers who inject politics and ideology into fields that should be studied objectively, like neuroscience and classical studies, because after all, there is only one objective truth and those shrill social justice warriors should just accept it. They love using really big words, because really big words make you sound smart. Basically, they’re all this guy:
"racial eugenics is WRONG? your argument is prima facie logicus bogicus. your fallacies are ad hominem, habeas corpus" NICE TRY U DORK BITCH— DVS (@DVSblast) August 9, 2017
Some of the other “novel ideas” published on Lehmann’s website include “Is It Wrong to Blame Islam?” (answer: no, have at it), “What to do with Confederate Statues?” (answer: put them in a park?), and “The Brains Trust of Intersectionality,” a bizarre essay that blames academics for using intersectionality to “poison Western society” without ever defining what intersectionality actually means.
These ideas aren’t novel, and they aren’t particularly revolutionary. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a noted critic of Islam who’s married to Henry Kissinger hagiographer Niall Ferguson, has repeatedly claimed there is no such thing as “moderate” Islam. The descendants of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis have told numerous publications, including Slate and CNN, that they’d be happy with their ancestors’ statues being moved to public parks or museums, where they can be put “in some kind of historical context.” In a June op-ed, New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss called intersectionality “a kind of caste system, in which people are judged according to how much their particular caste has suffered throughout history.” None of the opinions expressed on Quillette are being shunned from mainstream discussion, as Lehmann might have you believe.
Science has never been apolitical; the only people who benefit from the notion that “reason” is not subjective are those people whose lives aren’t already politicized.
What Quillette is doing isn’t new: it is reframing normative ideas as subversive, just like the right-wing college students who claimed conservatism is “the new counterculture” after their candidate won the 2016 presidential election. Quillette makes tired alt-right talking points sound erudite. It bridges the gap between the political fringe and the academy and elevates trolling easily angered liberals to a collegiate level. It cloaks regressive arguments in academic jargon.
Instead of writing off the academic left — and, generally speaking, women and people of color — as crybabies or social justice warriors, Quillette’s writers use the classical liberal tradition of “mature debate” to dismiss marginalized voices. Quillette takes the centrist obsession with objectivity and facts, the centrist’s only antidote to “fake news,” and applies it to academia. What Quillette’s fans fail to realize is that facts are constantly in flux. Less than two centuries ago, phrenology — a scientific field in its own right at the time — was used to justify chattel slavery in the United States. J. Marion Sims, the father of gynecology, made several medical insights by experimenting on the bodies of enslaved black women. Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service let hundreds of poor black men go untreated for syphilis for research purposes. Science has never been apolitical; the only people who benefit from the notion that “reason” is not subjective are those people whose lives aren’t already politicized.
The great irony of Quillette is that Lehmann and her followers claim to hate the collegiate culture of political correctness — and the victim complex they think it fosters — but have no problem framing themselves as victims of an academic attack on free speech and rationality, even as their dumb, regressive opinions are embraced by the mainstream. Triggered much?