COVID-19 Bites Identity Politics

As I write this, I am surrounded by silence: not only the silence of a small university town on lockdown but, also, the silence of the feminists and postmodernists as the COVID-19 pandemic has taken over.

Where are the usual attacks on white male-dominated science? Where’s the “standpoint epistemology” to tell us how different is the knowledge intersectionally-appropriate feminist scientists would bring to this crucial problem? How many of those labs fiercely trying to find a treatment, a vaccine, a path forward, have a demographically appropriate number of women researchers? Not to mention racially and sexually “diverse” ones? What can possibly explain the lack of attention to this terrible problem of marginalization of the already oppressed?

On a women’s studies listserve I subscribe to, activity has been almost at a standstill for weeks. You’d think with the endless attention paid to the virus there would be vigorous debate about the need to bring feminist, queer, trans, and other such perspectives to bear, and heated discussions of how to convey this to students via distance learning. Or, at the very least, that criticisms would be voiced of the data showing that men are more vulnerable to the virus than women. If one is “assigned” the category of male or female at birth—by now a routine formulation aped even by medical organizations– how could an uncaring virus ever make such a distinction?

[Wanna Teach? Submit a Killer ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’ Pledge]

Can anything positive come out of the current crisis? Or, is it strictly a negative to be reminded that reality – the actual physical world, in all its threatening materiality – is not a social construction, and that solutions to a virus must engage with that material world, and not merely attack the rhetoric of disease and the identity of those researching it. Indeed, the spread of the virus seems to depend also on social configurations (proximity, touching, etc.), but that’s because underlying that social aspect is an infectious virus governed by its own biological imperatives.

One of the most relevant books for understanding how we got to the dismissal of science in favor of identity politics with all its ideological baggage is more than twenty years old. It is an excellent read for this time of hibernation. A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science, edited by Noretta Koertge (a philosopher of science), was published by Oxford University Press in 1998. Rereading it over the past few days, I was encouraged to encounter, again, so many cogent and careful explanations of how and why dismissals of science were and are wrong-headed.

The volume begins with an essay by that brilliant jester Alan Sokal, recounting the significance and limitations of the hoax he perpetrated in 1996. Sokal, a theoretical physicist, had sent to the trendy culture-studies journal Social Text his essay entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” His essay was made up of numerous quotations on mathematics and physics drawn from fashionable American and European intellectuals, all intended to bolster his conclusion that reality does not exist.

[Playing Politics With History]

So pleased were the editors of Social Text to have a scientist—a physicist no less—confirm what so many non-scientists had claimed, that they did not even bother submitting the essay to a scientist for review. Perhaps they believed the view blithely affirmed for years past that science is no more objective than art. In any event, Sokal’s essay was printed in the spring-summer 1996 issue of Social Text, devoted to the “science wars.” Three weeks after the essay appeared, Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca (May-June 1996) that it was a parody. The arcane quotations were all too real–and largely meaningless– but the conclusions drawn from them were not. Anyone at all versed in science, Sokal explained, would have realized the absurd errors, misrepresentations, and foolishness contained in the words of these famous postmodern Masters, so lionized in humanities and social science departments.

As Sokal explains in his essay in A House Built on Sand, what he had done was select “the silliest quotations” he could find. His only contribution, he states, “was to invent a nonsensical argument linking these quotations together and praising them. This involved, of course, advocating an incoherent mishmash of trendy ideas—deconstructive literary theory, New Age ecology, so-called feminist epistemology, extreme social-constructivist philosophy of science, even Lacanian psychoanalysis—but that just made the parody all the more fun.”

Sokal is careful not to overstate his case — and later co-authored, with Jean Bricmont, another theoretical physicist, an entire book, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (1998)–explicating the errors of these scholars, and to explain his terms. By silliness, he refers first to “meaningless or absurd statements, name-dropping, and the display of false erudition.” And, second, to “sloppy thinking, and poor philosophy, which come together notably (though not always) in the form of glib relativism.” Although the “Sokal affair,” as it became known, was discussed around the world, bad intellectual habits die hard, and the academic field of “science studies”—really “anti-science studies”– is still with us, as is the hostility toward biology and the accompanying insistence on extreme social constructivism.  [The relevance of Sokal’s hoax even today is discussed in Physics Today, 2017.]

[‘Social Justice’ Ideology Is Damaging American Values]

The other essays in A House Built on Sand, written by scholars in the two cultures of science and the humanities, trace the development of antagonism toward science, dismissed as sexist, racist, capitalist, colonialist, and so on. But the essays’ coherence and logic did not stop the trend—nor did many other valuable books on the subject. Instead, the social construction of everything is a viewpoint that has for decades been entirely assimilated not only into women’s studies programs (renamed Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, to encompass biology as well as society, as evidenced particularly in the attack on sexual dimorphism and heterosexuality) but into many other programs as well.

But let us return to COVID-19 and the inescapable reality of the moment: Ideology will not help us – thinking good thoughts, proper feminist thoughts, or racially-appropriate ones, won’t solve the problem. Careful research will. “Mitigation,” as we are discovering, is not enough. Yes, research protocols may be modified, given the urgency of the matter, but in the end, sound science is needed – the kind of science that wiped out polio in the U.S. and developed drugs to stop HIV from being a death sentence. The search for and efficacy of such treatments depend not on who is doing the research but on the best possible empirical procedures.

For years I have noted that no one lives postmodern, though many still speak it, still pull out their identity games to make ad hominem arguments instead of substantive ones. Yet few people refuse antibiotics because they were developed in white patriarchal societies. As Noretta Koertge, a philosopher of science, stated long ago: there is no “feminist science,” though there are feminists doing science, not at all the same thing.

Not only are the streets empty as I write this, but rage and resentment toward science and its accomplishments seem, for the moment, muted. Of course, there’s no lack of complaints directed against all the political/distributional/managerial aspects of the present crisis, so ideologues and just everyday citizens still have plenty to say. Nonetheless, as the sheer destructive reality of the novel coronavirus continues, a lot of hubris is being crushed. For the moment, all eyes are focused on science and scientists once again, without the bean-counting of identity issues and the madness of identity being treated as the guarantor of the validity of one’s knowledge.

Let’s hope it doesn’t all spring back into place once the virus recedes.

Daphne Patai

Daphne Patai

Daphne Patai is professor emeritus in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of, "What Price Utopia? Essays on Ideological Policing, Feminism, and Academic Affairs," among other books,

15 thoughts on “COVID-19 Bites Identity Politics

  1. “Let’s hope it doesn’t all spring back into place once the virus recedes.”

    Let’s. But it will.

  2. Amherst writ large is Boston — and today’s _Boston Herald_ is openly warning of the consequences of students not returning in the fall.
    At the same time, students are now filing lawsuits against the colleges for breach of contract, both for room & board as well as the inferior on-line education. See: https://www.campusreform.org/?ID=14781

    Notwithstanding everything Daphne says — which is true — the bottom line is that I don’t think that Higher Ed is going to make it.

    An analogy — in the Fall of 1957, much of Maine burned. It was a very dry year and firefighting efforts weren’t what they are now (the septic tank pumper was the most effective weapon they had) and it was worse than anything California has seen. One fire literally went up one side of Cadillac Mountain (Acadia National Park) and down the other — the only escape from Bar Harbor was in lobster boats heading straight out to sea, and even then some folk almost didn’t make it as the wind-driven flames literally chased them out to sea. (Burning embers starting fires on the fleeing boats even though they already were several miles offshore.)

    Most of the “Gilded Era” mansions burnt to the ground. Same thing in York County (eg Kennebunk) with the more modest summer cabins that people had built. And all the trees were gone too — it was a desolated wasteland that people literally walked away from. Much of the land was acquired by towns for unpaid taxes, and the rest wasn’t redeveloped until the 1980s (when the trees had grown back, somewhat).

    I think the same thing is going to happen to higher education if the campi can’t open this fall. The students will walk away — much of the student literature is openly saying that they intend to — and then what will remain? With all the revenue tied to the students, who are no longer there, how will it not be like the caretakers who left after they no longer had out-of-state millionaires paying them to take care of their “cottages”?

    The retired and independently wealthy may remain in the college towns, for a while, but what is there to keep them there? Without the vibrant college culture, these “college” towns will become like the former industrial towns in Massachusett’s “Appalachia.”

    If this hysteria extends into the fall, it’s not going to be pretty….

  3. There haven’t been any op-eds about the disparate racial impact of the lockdowns in creating 30 million new unemployed. In this case it’s actually true, but I guess it’s inconvenient that the most progressive officials are the ones inflicting the harm.

    1. Disparate impact which way?

      It’s been suggested for years that the public sector had a higher percentage of minorities than the private sector due to affirmative action. And while nearly the entirety of the public sector continues to be paid, it’s the private sector that is unemployed.

      Now there is evidence that African ancestry creates a statistically higher risk of morbidity and mortality — and the implications of that are something that the progressives ought to think about before they scream about it. Quarantining Americans on the basis of race is something that I’d REALLY prefer not to see….

  4. Professor Patai,

    I fear you are wrong in your statement, “… a lot of hubris is being crushed.“ The new reality after COVID-19 will likely look like the old reality.

    Per Winston Churchill, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.”

  5. Wow, the fact that you are a Professor Emeritus is most likely the only reason you can say these very sensible things. I tip my hat to you

    1. No, she was saying them 25 years ago when`she was a professor, albeit tenured. I will never forget the afternoon when she, I, and another professor were physically assaulted by the leadership of the Graduate Student Senate. Well, it was a very brief assault as all the GSS President’s friends melted back into crowd of bystanders and he wisely chose not to actually swing at me.

      This was as people were exiting a meeting of the Faculty Senate — the third professor had committed the offense of advocating civility on campus in comments he’d made to the Faculty Senate. That was back in the ’90’s — student thugs suppressing free speech is nothing new.

    2. This is not accurate, as it happens, as my numerous past writings on academic problems testify. I have always observed that professors don’t suddenly change character, or become outspoken critics of academic orthodoxies, by virtue of getting tenure or retiring.

  6. I never argue the issues with those who’ve bought the lefty dogma, I merely say, everything you think you know, is wrong. Short and sweet. Until that situation is rectified, there will be no reversal of the sillines abroad in the land.

  7. It’s probably my white, patriarchal, Zionist, sexist, racist ideas, but I personally would not get on an airliner designed by anything other than white, patriarchal, scientific and engineering principles. Nor would the most fervent feminist postmodernist.

  8. We can hope the identity madness will not spring back, but it shall, because its claim to victimhood is a successful strategy for winning jobs, income and status, and has been for decades on college campuses, in cultural circles, and in politics. The lockdown has only flattened the curve, so to speak, on the nonsense. Scores of future academic journal articles will reveal how this deadly American virus oppressed this Other, that Other, and the other Other. You’ll see.

    1. We already are — https://dailycollegian.com/2020/05/beloved-teacher-and-umass-alum-rana-zoe-mungin-dies-from-coronavirus-after-being-denied-testing-twice-2/

      The point I raise is very simple — what good would having knowing she had the Wuhan Virus done? All they would have done, had they tested her, was sent her home and then called her up a couple days later and told her to self quarantine as the test came back positive.

      But the allegations is that she’s dead because Evil Racists wouldn’t test her — and the Boston Globe wrote an article even worse than the above. And people do die of the flu…

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