Critical State Theory

I’m going to start with the conclusion of this note, because otherwise I think readers from one or the other of our two political tribes will autotune it and lump/dismiss me into the other tribe.

I believe two things.

First, I believe that parents, not the State and never the State, are responsible for their children’s education. That responsibility does not end when we drop our kids off at the bus stop, no matter how convenient that might be for parents or the State, and it means that parents absolutely have a huge say in what is taught and how it’s taught in public schools.

Second, I believe that our children should be taught the fact that racism is embedded in our nation’s history, and they should be taught those lessons a lot better than I was. True story: I first heard of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre from the HBO series Watchmen. Worse, for a couple of episodes I assumed it was a fictional plot device, part of the alternative history that weaves itself through that script. I mean, obviously it’s not possible that an event of this magnitude would be totally absent from my education. It had to be fiction.

Now if I were a betting man – and I am – I would be prepared to wager a considerable sum that most readers would largely share those two beliefs if asked about them separately and without additional political context. Unfortunately, nothing is without political context in modern American society, and as a result it has become nearly impossible to hold these two beliefs simultaneously, in public, at least. It’s like being pro-vax AND anti-mandate. Crazy, right?

This note is about the narrative process that makes it so difficult to hold these two beliefs at the same time. And why it’s so important that we do so, anyway.

The issue of Critical Race Theory in our elementary and secondary schools dominated every local election in the United States this past cycle, and I think it will dominate every local election for the next decade. But it wasn’t Critical Race Theory that was the issue. It was Critical Race Theory! TM, a meme-rich narrative of Resistance! TM to the oppression we face from carpetbagger elitists who have infiltrated our public schools and seek to turn our children into little Maoist cadres. I think Critical Race Theory! TM is a sham, a diversion, a largely fabricated thing of minor consequence in real-world but of huge consequence in narrative-world. I think it’s a cartoon in the technical sense of the word – an abstraction of an abstraction intentionally drawn for the political or economic benefit of the cartoonist. I think it’s part and parcel of Fiat World, where with enough cartoon power the mere declaration of a thing is enough to make it a thing.

But Critical Race Theory! TM works. It works in the same way that every other polarizing social issue, like Tear Down The Statues! TM or But The Bathrooms! TM, works. It’s a dog whistle for one side of the political spectrum and an obedience collar for the other side, such that the intentionally incendiary framing of the issue, combined with highly useful idiots on the periphery of both sides, push ALL of us into increasingly polarized positions.

Here’s the canonical Epsilon Theory note on how these cartoons push us.

And here’s specifically how this dog whistle / obedience collar process pushes us in the case of Critical Race Theory! TM , where those of us who are opposed to the politicization and cartoonification of our public schools are pushed into support for ridiculous positions like this from NBC News.

Schools face parents who want to ban critical race theory — and don’t get how teaching works

Or like this from the Washington Post.

Parents claim they have the right to shape their kids’ school curriculum. They don’t.

In their search for issues that will deliver Congress in 2022, conservatives have begun to circle around the cause of “parents’ rights.” In Indiana, Republican Attorney General Todd Rokita recently introduced a Parents Bill of Rights, which asserts that “education policy and curriculum should accurately reflect the values of Indiana families.” In Florida, the legislature passed an even more comprehensive bill, assuring that the state and its public schools cannot infringe on the “fundamental rights” of parents. A growing number of states are allowing parents to sue districts that teach banned concepts. And in Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin has made parents’ rights a centerpiece of his campaign for governor, staging “parents matter” rallies and declaring, “I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.” 

Given this frenzy, one might reasonably conclude that radicals are out to curtail the established rights that Americans have over the educational sphere. Yet what’s actually radical here is the assertion of parental powers that have never previously existed.

These aren’t fringe publications. This is NBC News. This is the Washington Post.

But increasingly this is what it means to be opposed to the bullshit use of Critical Race Theory! TM as a political weapon. You have to be for equally bullshit positions like these, where the statement “I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.” is presented as a wild-eyed, dangerous assertion of radical Republican politics.


I wrote this four years ago, in a note titled Clever Hans. We’ve put the note outside the paywall if you want to read the whole thing. I can’t say it any better than this, so I’m going to say it again. This one is from the heart.

We homeschool our children.

I don’t talk about this very much in public, because most people assume that homeschoolers are either religious zealots or antisocial freaks, and we’re definitely not the former. Maybe a bit antisocial, but I wouldn’t call it “freakish” per se. We just don’t like seeing neighbors’ houses. Or neighbors. People, really … okay, maybe a little freakish after all. But that’s not why we homeschool.

We homeschool because we want to be more active participants in our children’s education. That’s not a knock on our local public schools, which are as good as they come. That’s not a knock on private schools in the area, many of which are world-renowned. We homeschool because most of the practices and structures of the modern school, public or private, exist for the benefit of the institution, not the child. There’s nothing evil or bad about this, it’s just inherent in the logistics and organization required for any effective institution responsible for hundreds or thousands of people. But it’s not just logistics. It’s not just the bus schedule. It’s also the curriculum. It’s also the homework and the testing. It’s also the social structures and social behaviors that are embedded in the modern school.

Modern education is a perfect example of the Industrially Necessary Egg — spotlessly clean and cool to the touch, not because that makes for a better tasting egg, but because the protein factories that supply mass society with mass quantities of eggs require chemical washes and refrigeration to turn a profit. That’s fine. I get it. We live in a big world where lots of people want eggs, and the protein factories satisfy that desire pretty effectively.

But what’s not fine is that we have all been nudged into believing that the Industrially Necessary Egg is the Best Egg, that a fresh egg, which isn’t scrubbed clean and never sees a refrigerator, is an Inferior Egg. We have all been nudged into believing that of course 13-year olds should be grouped with other 13-year olds during most waking hours, that of course there should be a clear delineation between home life and school life, that of course the school day should mirror the adult work day, that of course classroom lectures are the most effective pedagogy, that of course children can only be socialized by letting them roam free in a big flock from one semi-shepherded environment to another.

I don’t begrudge the practices and structures of modern schools. Necessary is as Necessary does.

I don’t begrudge the taxes that I pay to support these schools. Don’t tell anyone, but I’d pay even more to support public education and public safety.

What I begrudge is the question that I always get when I tell someone that we homeschool our kids: “Don’t you worry about their socialization?”

My response: “Don’t you?”

My god, hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers have doubled over the past 10 years. Tell me you don’t know a family touched by this tragedy. Tell me you don’t see how our children are sexualized and objectified at a younger and younger age, not by predators lurking outside some gender-neutral bathroom, but by themselves, adrift in the vast oceans of social media. Tell me you don’t see how drug and alcohol use by our children is changing in form, where instead of getting high to party they get wasted to obliterate themselves.

None of this is the fault of the Industrially Necessary School. But it’s not unconnected, either.

So yeah, we want to be active participants in our childrens’ lives, and that’s why we homeschool. Not to shield them or isolate them from reality, but to be there for them as counselors and teachers as they confront reality. And not just to be there for them when mass society allows us, when it’s our turn during the work week to take responsibility for our own kids, but to embrace that responsibility all of the time. Because it IS our responsibility all of the time, no matter how much mass society facilitates and nudges us into partially abdicating that responsibility so that we can work longer and longer hours in service to the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy.

I know that homeschooling isn’t for everyone. I know that homeschooling is impossible for most. I know that when I say “we homeschool” it is entirely a royal we, where my wife shoulders 99% of the burden. But I also know that you don’t have to homeschool outright to be a truly active and engaged participant in your child’s education. Everyone can do that.

Being an active and engaged participant in your children’s education isn’t a political statement. It’s a statement of advocacy for the most important people in our lives – our children. See, I think the only way to survive Fiat World is to be an advocate. We must be advocates for our health, our livelihood, and our autonomy of mind. But most of all we must be advocates for our children.

We have to raise our hands and say enough. We have to say that when it comes to our children, a principled middle ground exists despite the polarizing impulses of Fiat World. We have to say that yes, parents are responsible for their children’s education AND yes, our children should be taught the fact of embedded racism in our nation’s history.

I am not afraid of that responsibility. I know that it is my responsibility, no matter how convenient it might be to pretend it didn’t exist. Because I have faith that in shouldering this responsibility, my children will do better for themselves and the world.

Nor am I afraid of those facts. I am not afraid of my children learning those facts, no matter how convenient it might be to pretend they didn’t exist. Because I have faith that in knowing these facts, my children will do better for themselves and the world.

And in that I find a foundation for a life well lived.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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  1. Thanks Ben for the thoughtful note. I find the arguments for homeschooling salient enough for me to *nudge my wife to continue our conversation whether homeschooling is right for us.

    Somewhat unrelated but I find it interesting that white America talks about racism in the past tense (history of racism) while African Americans talk about racism in the present tense. To African Americans racism is a reality that has evolved and changed but ever present.

    It’s only words, but …

  2. I agree that words matter greatly, as we are animals of language. “Racism is” is so very different from “racism was”.

  3. Wow. Only two comments. I guess everyone is stuffed and can’t move from the couch! :slight_smile:

    Ben, I think it would be extremely beneficial for you to interview James Lindsey and (hopefully) have a thoughtful conversation. I know yall have had some dustups on twitter, but I think there is a lot of light to be gained by you interviewing/challenging him.

    And for the record, I am in the Lindsey/Rufo camp, but I respect the hell out of your perspective & would like to hear a dialogue between you and one of them.

    I think a Dr. Hunt Dr. Lindsay dialectic would be fruitful!

    Happy Thanksgiving!


  4. I recall some press pieces immediately after the most recent Virginia election arguing that the after analysis positing that there pre-election focus that there was no ‘there’ there with Critical Race Theory! TM was a mistake, and that the focus for Dems should have been on actually hearing the parents’ concerns. That may be largely true, but I tend to think the answer to how to think through what happened, as a post mortem, is indeed a both/and, not so much an either/or, but the part about parental concerns would still dominate the majority of the blended argument. Maybe even most of it. Which I think Ben’s argument here does a great job of illustrating.

    I’m not a parent, and five plus decades on Earth now I’m almost certainly never going to be. No siblings either, so unfortunately no nephews/nieces for me to have a lifelong semi-shared experience. So for the most part, as a voter this argument does not and would not resonate for me. But I do have plenty of friends and colleagues, of course, with kids, and I listen to them so I get how the meme hit at a visceral level. I also live right next door to Virginia and work with boatloads of Virginians so I got to listen a lot to how the positions resonated or not with people in my orbit.

    Each word of the meme serves a purpose, and in different ways galvanizes a spectrum of definite, probably, possible, and even unlikely voters, to either re-enlist (so to speak), feel justified about their choice, rationalize themselves into ignoring what is happening within the GOP write large, finally find a motivation that gets them to the polls, or even feel courageously doing ‘truth to power’ and sending a seemingly ‘safe’ message of dissatisfaction to the party they just voted for in November 2020.

    Thematically, the meme can be perceived as extreme, inflammatory, a dog whistle, rational, concerning, motivational, a tipping point, and/or an opportunity, depending on who is doing the hearing. Its really quite flexible.

    At the national level every one of these themes will be used in differing combinations. In many instances, quite effectively. The Left will be challenged to craft their gameplan, which will be better organized locally than at the national level, given the multiplicity of lines of attack. Without a gameplan the meme will pull many of the politicians on the left more to the center, and in a defensive posture, which is in itself its own ‘win’, setting and reinforcing favorable conditions for debates, rallies, interviews, and ultimately, results.

    Footnote: As a lifelong student of (gasp) continental philosophy and a currently a part-time PhD pursuer in (wait for it) Critical Security Studies, outside of my day job, I did find the related and all too brief attacks and defenses of Immanuel Kant on the bird app after the election quite amazing as one sub tribe of the masses were hilariously continuing to try to either justify their use of what they think is some form of Critical Theory, or, also hilariously, think they are ipso facto’ing some definitive refutation of the authenticity of what’s happening.

  5. Thanks for the note, Ben. You eloquently put into words some of the conflicts I have been feeling in listening to the news about critical race theory. We also homeschooled our three children for most of their pre-college days. All of them had very socially and academically successful collegiate experiences since. I also simultaneously believe that parents are responsible for their children’s education AND that it’s important to understand real history to understand the present especially the eugenics movement and race relations. In our homeschool, we highlighted race issues via some excellent podcasts like those from Stuff You Missed in History on the Wilmington Insurrection and the Tulsa Massacre and subsequently had good discussions about history without having to decide if we were democrats or republicans. BTW I registered as independent after getting frustrated with the Republican party around 2013-14.

  6. With all due respect Ben - and I have enormous respect for you and your normally extremely well thought out views - I strongly disagree with your characterization of Critical Race Theory as being about acknowledging the racism in our country’s past (or present), or events like the Tulsa massacre. That is not what it is about. That is what its proponents are trying to shift the narrative to, but the core of CRT is that our system is irredeemably ‘racist’, that people are either ‘oppressors’ or ‘oppressed’, and that Martin Luther Kings dream of a colorblind society and the idea of equality under the law is impossible. That strikes at the very foundations of our society, is absolutely incompatible with our current constitutional system, and if the mainstream Democrats continue to allow this radical wing to push this poison, then the risk of open civil conflict will continue to increase.

    Frankly I think that CRT is one of two existential threats to America (the other being China), and it is old school liberals and moderate Democrats that have to be the ones to step in and end this fight by rejecting CRT. If this becomes entrenched as a ‘Republican vs Democrat’ issue, then we are truly staring into the abyss. Does more work need to be done to address racism and improve opportunities for some minorities? Absolutely. But that work has to be done in accordance with the ideals of equality under the law. Rejecting that and ripping up the Constitution is a recipe for outright conflict, as there are probably 100m+ people in this country that will fight - literally fight - to preserve the Constitution and equality under the law. CRT is not a ‘Civil Rights’ movement, it is a radical revolutionary movement. The Civil Rights movement succeeded because it simply asked that the rights promised under the Constitution be extended to all people, regardless of race or sex. It asked America to uphold the ideals that it claimed to be founded upon. That is not what CRT proponents are asking for. They are rejecting the Constitution and trying to replace it.

    With respect, I suspect that the open racism that you saw growing up in Alabama has blinded you somewhat on this issue.

  7. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    I understand perfectly well what Critical Race Theory claims, and I think it’s like pretty much every other Critical Studies argument in academia – a post-Marxist, post-modern strawman argument that takes a thread of truth and weaves it into a vast nonsense tapestry. Welcome to academia!

    My note is not about Critical Race Theory, which I think is ridiculous. It’s about Critical Race Theory! TM - a mainstream, non-academic political narrative that highlights the ridiculousness of CRT and creates a politically useful boogeyman of Our Children Are In Danger! TM.

    Exactly the same thing happened in the 1950s around the original Critical Studies subject - Marxism. It was a political gambit then and it’s a political gambit now, but it’s far more effective today because of systemic changes in media availability and consumption.

  8. Here’s how this works, and it’s pretty obvious to anyone paying attention:

    1. Thing That People Object To isn’t real.
    2. Thing That People Object To is real but nobody is doing it.
    3. Akshually it’s a good thing that the Thing That People Object To is being done, we never said it wasn’t, and frankly we think it’s pretty [insert undesirable ism] that you’d even object in the first place.

    The playbook is pretty standard and frankly it bores me that nobody has come up with anything more clever than this.

  9. Thesis (CRT), antithesis (anti-CRT), synthesis (this). The Gnostic dialectic is so embedded in how we moderns think that we cannot have a conversation about the dialectic without using the dialectic nor can we see this.

  10. Avatar for Zenzei Zenzei says:

    Amen. I think a lot about the prison of the binary, the cage of duality.

  11. Right. In reality, reality is not binary. At least that is the Christian assumption that lies at the foundation of our culture and society.

    I think I am describing this properly, but oftentimes the two opposites are showing different sides of the same thing and you do NOT arrive at what that thing is via the dialectic method. You probably just make something up.

  12. I think you would enjoy Mattias Desmet’s research into Mass Formation as it deals specifically with Mass Media taking advantage of a crowd. He’s done some great podcasts and is coming out with a book in English soon. His research is built upon the work of Hannah Arendt and Gustav Le Bon.

    In regards to teaching racism, my understanding is that both liberal and conservatives generally agreed that our country had a legal issue with racism until the Civil Rights Act. Afterwards, there were some societal problems that were more cultural than legal.

    I think what people are missing in this conversation is a part of our culture that we have lost recently and cannot understand our past without it. In the past, I think we knew we used to have a legal problem, and after we by and large did not, it was up to us as Christians to judge each other by our character and not our skin color. Without this, we seem to be focusing on finding disparities everywhere in life in a political fashion and not focused on treating each others as Images of God. I think this switch in focus is what most people object to, and then of course the introduction of affirmative action into the workplace will cause an uproar.

    If we include this Christian framework, our past makes more sense. If we do not, then we must have been racist because we were not actively seeking to demolish all group differences from all areas of life and creating political movements to do so.

    Parents just want their kids to be treated well and not feel guilty for something they did not do, though I am sure textbooks could be improved, government programs, especially, improved, etc.

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